Letter to the Editors: A call for integrity on reporting about students with extended time

Biological diversity is not only real, it is an imperative for the survival of any species. Little phenotypical or genotypical idiosyncrasies that may seem minor in the moment can mean the difference between adaptation and extinction during a drastic change in environmental conditions. For humans, variations in melanin, hair texture, height, skeletal shape and other physical characteristics are obvious and accepted forms of biological diversity. We also accept the fact that some people are left-handed and other people need glasses. So why would neurological diversity be any different? Of course there are going to be people who process visual or auditory information differently, whose brains move their eyes or hands at varying rates, or who are more sensitive to stimuli than the majority of people. Diversity is more than skin deep; it exists in all organisms on every level, including humans.

Scientists and doctors estimate that approximately ten percent of the U.S. population has a neurologically diverse attribute that negatively affects learning in a traditional school environment. Conditions such as dyslexia (difficulty with reading), dyscalculia (difficulty with math), and dysgraphia (difficulty with handwriting) are three common examples of this type of diversity. In addition, some students have difficulty sustaining constant energy to their prefrontal cortex when engaged in tasks that are not highly stimulating, a condition we call ADHD, which is estimated to comprise anywhere between five to ten percent of the U.S. population. Then there are students with eye conditions that slow down their reading speed, anxiety and other psychological disorders that slow down processing speed, as well as post-concussion syndrome and the long-term effects of other traumatic brain injuries that make testing under timed conditions incredibly challenging. Add all of these students together and you get the population who could be eligible for extended time.

At Harvard-Westlake School, approximately 11 percent of our students receive extended time on timed, in-class assessments and exams. Their neurological diversity comes in the forms of learning disabilities, physical conditions and psychological conditions that have been proven to slow down their processing speed and/or ability to read, write, or do math fluently. In order to qualify for extended time, students must submit a full psychological-educational or neuropsychological-educational evaluation, which are usually between twelve to thirty-five pages in length, to demonstrate their high level of ability along with an area of weakness. All reports are evaluated by the school and verified by teacher observations if the data appears inconclusive. The school reserves the right to refuse to grant accommodations if we do not feel the data supports the request, and it has made that determination in the past when it was warranted. If anything, the low percentage of students who receive accommodations for the myriad of reasons listed above suggests that the school has more students in need of accommodations who have yet to be identified, not that our students are exploiting the system. In fact, we have extended our financial assistance package to include psychological-educational testing in order to ensure all of our students who qualify are able to receive the accommodations they need.

In a recent opinion article published in the January issue of the Chronicle, the writer used inaccurate data to support her claim that some students with extended time “do not genuinely qualify for it.” The result was an unfounded and unfair attack on students in our community who receive extended time. That article is now being distributed nationally by news organizations. The irony of an article that uses incorrect and misinterpreted information to accuse students who have pages of valid documentation to support their need for extended time of being liars and cheats should not be lost on anyone. In fact, it should cause us to pause and wonder why it is societally acceptable to attack a group of students whose neurological diversity forces them to stand out from their classmates. Would we allow such incredulous claims about any other minority group to stand without scrutiny?

Is there truth in the claim that there are students who obtain testing from unscrupulous testers or for manipulative purposes? Absolutely. Corruption exists in every human system. However, in my experience, those students often apply directly to the College Board or ACT to request accommodations on those tests rather than send their testing to the school to receive accommodations in their day-to-day classes. As was highlighted in the recent Operation Varsity Blues cheating scandal, extended time alone is not going to help students do better on the SAT or ACT if they do not know the material, asin actuality it was corrupt proctors who provided the correct answers that raised the students’ scores. Furthermore, using the argument that students with extended time who tell their classmates that they do not really have a diagnosis or need extended time as evidence of mass corruption is akin to starting a scandal about an over-diagnosing optometrist because students say they really do not need to wear their glasses. Adolescents do not always accurately self-report when it could affect their ability to fit in socially, and they do not always follow doctors’ orders.

It is not easy being a student at HW who has a neurologically diverse profile that requires accommodations. Except for tests and quizzes, students who qualify for extended time must meet every homework, paper, and project deadline at the same time as their classmates, despite having reading and writing speeds that make every homework assignment take 50-100 percent longer. The reality is students with extended time are forced to have excellent time management skills, as they must do the same amount of work in the same amount of time as their classmates who read and process up to twice as fast. Contrary to the argument that students with extended time will not be ready for “the real world,” in reality students with extended time not only have highly developed time management skills for daily tasks and large projects, they also will get accommodations on any exams they take in the future, as is required by law. Furthermore, many neurologically diverse students are gifted athletes and artists who have multiple extracurricular commitments, which means their ability to master their time and keep up with their peers becomes a heroic act of relentless determination as they gift their communities with their talents. The character of the students with extended time who I serve is admirable beyond belief. Their ability to weather the storms of judgment from their peers and advocate for their needs while holding onto a strong sense of their own intelligence and self-worth is something very few adolescents possess, but it is a skill they are forced to acquire. If anything, these students deserve our respect and admiration for their resilience and determination in the face of incredible challenges. At the very least, these students deserve journalists who take the time to check their facts and research their arguments instead of rushing to judgment about students with extended time.

Click here to read a letter from the editors responding to Grace Brown’s guest editorial