Skylar* hunched over her Spanish test in the Silent Study room, stymied by an unfamiliar vocabulary word in a free response question.
“One of the penalties of having extended time is that if you have a question about the test, you just have to suck it up,” Skylar said.
Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, students with disabilities must be accommodated in their school. Often, students with learning disabilities such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are recommended to receive extended time after a series of tests administered by doctors and psychologists.
At Harvard-Westlake, students who have been granted extended time can take 150 percent of the time allotted to a typical student on any major exam. Eight to 10 percent of Harvard-Westlake students have extended time, school psychologist Dr. Sheila Siegel said.
Because she has extended time, Skylar takes many tests in free periods or after school, without her teachers present. Since the beginning of ninth grade, she has used extended time on every major test and in-class essay.
Many of Skylar’s teachers split her tests into two sections so she can take one half during the class with her peers and the second half later.
“I’m really lucky that a lot of my teachers have faith in me and they allow me to come back, but you can easily hear other people talking about [the test],” she said. “I know not to ask anyone because that would be against the Honor Code.”
The Honor Code stipulates that students “neither give nor receive unauthorized aid, as defined by [a] teacher both explicitly and implicitly, from any source on exams, homework, quizzes, papers, or any other academic endeavor.”
Junior Prefect Oliver Goodman-Waters ’14 said that hearing other students talk about a test he hasn’t yet taken would be a violation of the Honor Code “if hearing about the test would give an unfair advantage on the test.”
Skylar has heard rumors about classmates who obtain extended time but do not actually have a learning disability or other medical reason for the extra time.
“I’m sure there are some people, maybe not at this school or maybe at other places, who don’t necessarily need it,” she said. “I actually need it, it’s not just something that I’m getting because I feel like ‘oh, I just want some more time for tests.’”
Maxwell* ’14 has ADD and only began using extended time during his junior year.
“I just got it for SAT purposes,” he said.
Maxwell, who takes a full load of classes, has sports practice most days after school so scheduling time-and-a-half tests is particularly difficult. In science and math, he said, he has to take the full test in one sitting; in history, he can take the multiple choice section during one period and do the essay section during a free period, though his teachers prefer that he take the entire test at once.
“There’s too much of a risk,” he said. “You could just go look up the answers on the Internet.”
Although he takes all honors classes, Maxwell only uses extended time on in-class English essays and math tests.
“I should really be in a regular math class, but I’m in an honors class because I try really hard, so it’s always tough to finish the tests,” he said.
Maxwell also believes students could potentially obtain a diagnosis without actually needing it, “like if they have a family friend that’s an educational therapist or something, they could get a statement from them,” he said.
“I believe that some parents use ADD and ADHD as an excuse for why their kids aren’t doing as well in school,” Hana Chop ’14 said.
Chop, who does not have extended time, thinks students and parents might be tempted to search for a diagnosis as a leg up in increasingly challenging classes and on standardized tests.
“Especially in such a competitive environment,” she said, “some parents think that some kids need an edge over other kids and that happens.”
Siegel said this is not possible because the school must receive a doctor’s note explaining why the student needs extended time. In some cases, the school also needs to see results of educational and psychological testing.
Siegel adds that extended time would not help those without disorders and would just cause students to overthink.
A 2005 College Board study measured the effects of extended time on the SAT scores of high-ability, medium-ability and low-ability nondisabled students and students with learning disabilities, including ADD and ADHD. Different groups of students took the same test under normal time restrictions, with time-and-a-half and with double the normal time allotted.
The study found that extra time helps high- and medium-ability test-takers both with and without learning disabilities.
“For medium-ability students, particularly in the double-time condition, the provision of extra time may give them the opportunity to work through the items in a more thorough and effective manner, thereby increasing their chances of generating a right answer,” the study said.
*names have been changed