Pressed for time

Paulina Shahery ’09 is not ashamed of using something that is her right. She doesn’t see her disability as anything but a difference in the way her brain is wired.

According to the National Institutes of Health, around 15 percent of the U.S. population is affected by a learning disability.

Shahery discovered her disability, a processing disorder, in ninth grade. In Biochemistry Honors, Shahery says she struggled with finishing her tests on time, something that seemed a simple task for most of her peers.

“Even if I understood the material, I wouldn’t even be able to finish half the test,” she said.

Shahery was diagnosed with a processing disorder, and was formally given extended time at school in her second semester of ninth grade. Shahery says extended time has had a tremendous impact on her grades and test scores.

“The use of extended time is in no way an indication of a student’s intelligence level,” said school psychologist Dr. Sheila Siegel. “Some of these kids are absolutely brilliant. But not allowing [them] extended time is like telling them to take a test without their glasses.”

Seventy-four students at the Upper School and 11 at the Middle School have permission to use extended time. Siegel finds that more students are diagnosed at the Upper School because of the higher levels of thinking upper school classes require.

The two most common learning differences among students at Harvard-Westlake are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — inattentive type and processing disorders, Siegal said. Processing problems relate to the speed at which the brain can understand and manipulate information. Some students take longer to retrieve information, which means they need more time to perform on par with their peers.

Students who believe they might have a learning difference must go to a psychologist for a battery of tests before applying for extended time at school.

The tests, which can last anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks, can effectively pinpoint the student’s disability, Siegal said. Based on test results, the psychologist may choose to recommend extended time for a student. The student must then bring a written report to school for evaluation by the school psychologist.

“My tester had me repeat a list of digits forwards and backwards, and I had to take a bunch of math tests,” said Alex Velaise ’11, who has been using extended time since the ninth grade. After a full evaluation of his test results, Velaise was diagnosed with dyslexia.

The school allows registered extended-time students 50 percent extra time on quizzes, tests, and final exams, but not long-term projects such as take-home essays or term papers.

At the Upper School, tests taken under these conditions are administered by Candris Madison in the silent study room of Mudd library. Students may choose to take their tests straight through or come in to finish what they started during a previous period. But many students don’t use extended time for all of their tests, Madison said.

Although students with extended time say that they perform better on tests with the extra time, some teachers are unsure of how useful that time is.

“In my experience, there is not usually a significant difference in grades for these students before and after receiving extended time,” Drew Maddock, A.P. United States History and A.P. World History teacher, said. Maddock also finds that with the extra time given, students have trouble focusing their essays, and often end up writing “long and rambling” paragraphs.

“The benefits of extended time may be more emotional and psychological,” he added. “The time might serve to relax students or make them feel more sure of themselves, but not all students get better grades because of it.”

Studies by the state of California in 2000 found a “wide demographic disparity” among students who took the SATs in 1999 with extended time because of claimed learning disabilities. Students in private schools were four times as likely as those in public schools to get special accommodations.

Seniors are not required to disclose the use of extended time in their college applications, according to upper school dean Vanna Cairns.

Despite extensive testing which has proven extended time a necessary crutch for disabled students to perform on par with their peers, there is still debate among students concerning the fairness of it.

“I don’t think people understand how difficult it is. It takes me three times as long as anyone else to read through passages,” said Velaise, whose dyslexia makes it difficult for him to keep track of where he is on a page when reading.

Some people theorize that it is possible to abuse the system and receive extended time without actually having any disability. Siegel asserts that these rumors are completely untrue.

The process of receiving an official report from a professional psychologist is not only extremely time consuming, but can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,500, Siegel said.

“Here’s the problem with the myth. If you get extended time and you don’t need it, you do worse. You second guess yourself, and change your answers,” she said.

Although the skepticism surrounding extended time is often disconcerting, Siegel thinks that it seems to be lessening with more awareness.

“It is much more acceptable now. There is so much less stigma.”