28
votes

Some students with what is considered as academic disabilities receive 30 minutes of additional time for every hour of exam, which is a factor of 1.5 to the exam time.

How is this perceived by professors? Might some of them think that these students get an edge or advantage over other students unfairly?

If a student is looking forward to requesting a reference for grad school from a certain professor, would it generally be better for him/her not to request exam extensions for this professor's course?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion (or mini-answers); this conversation has been moved to chat. Feel free to continue discussion there. – ff524 Jan 24 '17 at 3:57
47
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(I will answer in the context of the U.S., but I hope others will answer for other parts of the world.)

How is this perceived by professors? Might some of them think that these students get an edge or advantage over other students unfairly?

The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has stated, "A test should ultimately measure a student's achievements and not the extent of the disability" (www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/auxaids.html).

If some professors are still playing catch-up, that's their problem. Extended time has been settled legally for at least 15 years (see the Marilyn Bartlett case about accommodations in the bar exam, which was decided TWICE by Sonia Sotomayor, long before she was appointed to the US Supreme Court).

If a student is looking forward to requesting a reference for grad school from a certain professor, would it generally be better for him/her not to request exam extensions for this professor's course?

There is no reason to have a tooth extracted without novocaine, i.e. there is no reason to sacrifice the needed accommodations, just because a professor might botch a letter of recommendation. I say botch because it would be discriminatory for a professor to judge a student's exam results differently just because the student used a reasonable accommodation to achieve them. OCR enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, which protect the civil rights of K-12, undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities.

Institutions of higher learning and testing boards do not provide extended time and other accommodations lightly. It is fair to assume that if the student has an approved 504 accommodation in place, it is in fact needed and appropriate. College professors are experts in their fields. We cannot expect them to also be experts in disabilities, and sit in judgment to decide which students truly deserve their legally binding accommodations and which do not. It would be even more absurd for them to make such judgments without a careful examination of the student's documentation. And if we did hand off this responsibility to individual professors... why would universities need to set up offices for students with disabilities?

  • 5
    You're speaking from an idealist point of view there. I don't usually comment here but when I was in Uni (very short time only) one of my profs was openly mocking a girl in class getting approved extra time throughout the semester, and even admitted informally to grading her exam harsher (she narrowly failed) because she had had "extra time". – Magisch Jan 25 '17 at 13:14
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    @Magisch such a professor should certainly receive disciplinary action, and the students work should be evaluated by another professor to see if she deserved to pass. Totally unacceptable behavior. – Steven Gubkin Jan 25 '17 at 13:50
  • @StevenGubkin You sure about that? We complained to the dean for this and other related issues that could fill a book but the dean dismissed our complaints as being salty because about 90% of the course failed the first exam. If it sounds like I'm bitter it's because I am still permanently disgruntled from going to uni again. This isn't isolated to this particular uni, either. – Magisch Jan 25 '17 at 14:58
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    @Magisch - If you're in the U.S., there will be a 504 compliance person, and that would be a reasonable first place to go. If that doesn't result in the desired changes, a complaint to the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is not difficult. (There is sometimes a backlog, though, so that is usually not an option for an urgent situation.) For other countries, I would encourage you to pose the question here, how to effect a meaningful change in an institution's attitudes about disability accommodations. – aparente001 Jan 25 '17 at 17:50
37
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I think, as educators, it is not our place to judge whether this extra time granted to students according to disability services is an "unfair advantage" or not. I am a mathematician, not a psychologist, so it's not my place to diagnose them or argue with someone else's diagnosis.

There is obviously considerable research done by people who focus on these types of issues that suggests that these are reasonable accommodations for these students, and I think that should be respected.

  • 7
    ...While I certainly don't think that mental processing speed is the key to being a successful mathematician, I also think that there are some professional situations in which slow processing would legitimately arise as an issue. E.g. a graduate student probably can't take 50% more time for their lectures or problem sessions or tutoring sessions. So that could (in theory) arise in a letter I am writing for a student. – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '17 at 23:23
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    @PeteL.Clark I think it would quite likely be a FERPA violation to disclose this sort of information about a student regarding their GRE (though I admit I don't know if there is just a blanket waiver when writing a letter), and taking this into account when dealing with graduate admissions could be considered discriminatory (or at least denying admission for this reason). – Morgan Rodgers Jan 23 '17 at 23:39
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    As far as writing a letter of recommendation, I don't think that I would consider a student who gets extra time to be less likely to succeed in graduate school. As far as giving a lecture, yes that could be problematic if they are not able to cover their lecture material in the allotted time, but needing extra time to take an exam would not necessarily suggest that that would be the case (for example, a student may get extra time because they are dyslexic and need to read more slowly/carefully; this could mean they need more time to prep a lecture, but is that a problem?). – Morgan Rodgers Jan 23 '17 at 23:39
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    Bottom line: a good recommendation letter makes a convincing case that the writer feels the student will succeed in graduate school in both absolute and relative terms. If you are for instance evaluating a student for a competitive scholarship on the basis of higher scores than other students, then ignoring the fact that the student got much more time could be a fairness issue. I think these are very difficult issues, and I have sympathy for all students, but there are fairness and ethical issues on both sides, I think. – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '17 at 23:53
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    Added: I looked up the GRE issue. Apparently ETS used to disclose when extra time was given. It says it no longer does. (Of course I don't know what standards it uses for deciding who gets extra time.) – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '17 at 23:58
15
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Timed exams are usually a function of larger, lower level lecture courses. As such, I don't really keep track of who has a letter or not.

The best grad school letters come from professors who've you've worked with individually, in seminar or lab. Evaluations in those cases are individual and less reliant on disability accommodation.

Tl;dr: ask for the accommodations you need to excel in the lecture courses. Try to take small seminars, work in labs, or do a junior or senior research project with a professor if you want a strong letter of recommendation that will help in grad school admissions.

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    This might vary by field, etc. In math, for instance, upper-division classes are usually small but still have timed exams. But at least for me, extended time doesn't make a difference there either. – Nate Eldredge Jan 23 '17 at 19:13
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    @sequence: Some exams may externally appear to be timed, while the limit actually means "if you had learned how to do this you would have finished hours ago, and there's no way for you to work it out during the exam, so stop making yourself miserable with an impossible task" -- a kindness to the students. – Ben Voigt Jan 23 '17 at 21:13
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    With regard to your first paragraph: in my department (mathematics, UGA) essentially all undergraduate courses have an in-class final exam and at least one in-class midterm. Also, there are essentially no seminars or labs for our undergraduate students. Some of the best grad school letters are written by faculty who had the student for multiple challenging courses and compare their mastery to that of past students. – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '17 at 21:57
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    @PeteL.Clark: I disagree that one of the "best grad school letters" in mathematics could be based solely on classroom performance. If you don't have other opportunities at your institution for students to interact with professors, this might be the best grad school letter available there; but that wouldn't invalidate Karen's point. – Tom Church Jan 24 '17 at 6:35
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    @skymningen: I find exam timing to be a practice mainly motivated not by some desire to pressure students, but rather by natural time limitations of universities, institutions, and life in general. I don't think there's good reason to actually strictly time people when a precise task needs to be done, unless it is naturally time-sensitive. – sequence Jan 24 '17 at 16:45
13
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I have a disability that qualifies for extended time and am no stranger to the unease that comes with asking for it. I know it can feel pretty uncomfortable asking for something that is inconveniencing the professor and potentially making you look 'needy' or 'weak'.

The truth is, however, that only ignorant or mean-spirited professors will perceive you this way. These are not the kind of people you want writing your recommendations, disability or not. If you think they might discriminate against you (and you are not just being paranoid) then that is a pretty good sign that this professor is NOT a good choice for a recommendation.

Honestly, recommendations should not come down to petty details like if you needed more time on exams. To write a strong recommendation, the professor should know you, your character, and your work ethic inside and out. This fundamental understanding of who you are as an individual should completely supersede something as trivial as needing extra time on exams. If you are worried about your disability heavily influencing what kind of recommendation you receive, that is a serious red flag indicating you do not have a sufficient relationship with your professor in order to receive a good recommendation. You either need to develop your relationship with them more, or start looking for someone else.

TL;DR If your professor actually knows you well enough to write you a strong recommendation, something as small as needing extra time on exams will not matter a bit. If you are worried about it hurting you, that is a warning sign you do not know the professor well enough for them to write you a strong recommendation. Either develop your relationship more, or find someone else. A good recommendation is about who you are as a person; your character, integrity, work ethic, intelligence, and drive. If they know you well enough to write you a strong recommendation, they know you well enough to see past your disability to who you truly are underneath.

11
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I have a bit of a different perspective. When I design a one hour exam, I make it so that a student who has completely mastered the material can complete it in much less than an hour. However, most students have not mastered all the material. As a result, most students spend much less than an hour answering the questions they can answer successfully, and the rest of the time failing to answer the remaining questions.

Often students who receive extra time because of disability do not use the extra time. I suspect students with accommodations who are using the extra time are simply spending more time failing to answer the questions they can't answer. This has nothing to do with their disability. It is just an indicator of persistence. In short, the extra time makes no difference.

However, there are many kinds of disabilities and each student is different, so I think some students are helped by extra time.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jan 27 '17 at 20:07

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