Who needs more time (on tests)?

Children with special needs often benefit from time extensions during exams, but teachers need to think carefully before providing them. Benjamin Lovett explains

BETWEEN HIGH-STAKES EXAMS and more typical teacher-made tests and quizzes, it is increasingly important for students to be able to demonstrate their skills on formal assessment measures in school. Unfortunately, many young people with disabilities have difficulty doing this, even when they have mastered the content that the assessments are designed to measure. For instance, some students with disabilities run out of time before having a chance to attempt answering all of the assessment items. Children with specific learning disabilities (eg, dyslexia) constitute the largest single disability group in US special education, and research has found that these students are often slower at reading than their peers, leading many to be given time extensions when taking tests. These testing accommodations (also called access arrangements) are also beneficial for certain children with attention problems or other disorders.

What we know
● Time extensions benefit children with disabilities, but also have a variety of important limitations.
● Time extensions are appropriate when students lack skills that are not designed to be measured by the test, but are needed to access the items.
● Relevant interventions should be provided along with time extensions, to make the extensions less necessary in the future.

Giving extended time accommodations is an attractive solution when young people with disabilities perform poorly on school assessments; the accommodations can raise performance, and they have also been shown to reduce test-related anxiety, making the assessment experience more comfortable. However, there are several limitations of these accommodations that teachers and administrations must always keep in mind. First, non-disabled students often derive the same benefits (both on performance and anxiety) that children with disabilities do, and so restricting the accommodations to students with disabilities can lead to an unfair situation. Second, standard time limits may be important to the exam. A student’s ability to work quickly may show that their academic skills are automatic and well-developed, as opposed to plodding and uncertain. For instance, we’re increasingly aware that in childhood, reading speed is an important skill to develop, and so in some cases, teachers might reasonably wish to measure speed, making time extensions as inappropriate as they would be during a running race. Third, extended time accommodations may keep children with disabilities from developing more fluent skills, eventually hurting these children in real-world settings. Indeed, research has found that some students with disabilities can work more quickly when briefer time limits are imposed, without making substantially more errors. Finally, providing time extensions immediately leads to decisions regarding the amount of additional time, decisions that appear to be quite arbitrary. For instance, in the US, extensions tend to be 50 or 100% additional time, whereas in the UK, 10 to 25% additional time is much more common.

Thinking about what you want to measure

Given the complex set of benefits and limitations of extended time accommodations, what should teachers and school administrators do? Any evidence-based approach starts out with a consideration of which skills a particular test is designed to measure. Valid tests actually measure the skills that they are designed to measure, and if a testing accommodation compromises those skills, the accommodation is itself invalid. Therefore, if the test designer (often a teacher) is interested in measuring reading speed, then time extensions might not be appropriate for any children. However, if the test designer is entirely uninterested in speed, fluency, and automaticity of skills, then the standard time limits should be made very liberal, and any students desiring more time should be given extensions, regardless of disability status. This approach is sometimes called “universal design for assessment”, since children with and without disabilities take the exam in the same way whenever possible.

Universal design for assessment is more difficult to apply when the test designer cares about what I call “fluency and automaticity of knowledge retrieval and use”. Consider a sixth-grade (Year 7 in the UK) mathematics teacher who wishes to ensure that her students can solve problems efficiently (and not merely accurately), and who knows from experience that children who take longer are probably using immature problem-solving strategies. In this case, it would be appropriate to provide extended time accommodations only to students who are deficient in access skills (that is, skills that the child needs to access the test, but that the teacher does not wish to measure). Here, reading speed would be an access skill. This is a common situation in secondary schools, and certainly in postsecondary settings such as college and professional training.

Using individualized assessment to make decisions

For cases where time extensions should be limited to students with particular access skill deficiencies, individualized diagnostic assessment is needed to determine which children meet the criteria. Typically, these students will have been formally identified as having special needs (such as a specific learning disability), and either their evaluation records will contain relevant information regarding access skill deficiencies, or else additional testing can be done. It is not enough to show deficiencies in cognitive skills such as working memory or even processing speed; the student should show deficiencies in specific access skills such as reading speed. (Research has shown that reading speed predicts children’s benefit from extended time but cognitive skills generally do not.) Moreover, it is not enough to show that students’ access skills are merely deficient in comparison to other skills that the children have; the access skills should be significantly below average for the students’ age. It is also helpful if teachers have noted that the child is rarely able to finish a classroom test in the allotted time. Finally, a school psychologist or special needs coordinator may be able to give different versions of a diagnostic test with and without accommodations to determine directly if there is a benefit. In particular, the psychologist should examine the number of test items that were reached with and without accommodations, not the number of items answered correctly; accommodations are designed to increase access to the test, not to make up for a lack of content mastery.

Once time extensions are shown to be needed, determining the amount of time to give can be difficult. In our research, my colleagues and I have found that 25% additional time is usually the amount of time needed for students with common disabilities (specific learning disabilities and attention problems) to reach the same number of test items as their non-disabled peers. We recommend that no more than 25% additional time be given initially, with more time only being given if 25% is shown to be insufficient to reach test items, and only when speed is not a skill of interest to the teacher.

Providing intervention with accommodations

When extended time is given, either to all students or to those with deficiencies in relevant access skills, it should also be a sign that they could benefit from interventions in the access skills. Reading speed is an important access skill, and although extended time accommodations are often appropriate for young people who are slow readers, the accommodations should be part of a comprehensive educational program that also includes interventions. Research has shown that both elementary and secondary students can learn to improve their speed and automaticity of reading through specialized remedial exercises, such as repeatedly reading the same passages to build fluency. Therefore, when accommodations are provided, we should not assume that they will always be needed; they will not be, if fluency interventions are successful. More generally, the possibility of interventions reminds us of why we give time extensions in the first place: we want to make sure that children are capable of showing their mastery of the academic curriculum. Using accommodations judiciously, not carelessly, is the key to achieving this goal.

About the author

Benjamin J. Lovett is Associate Professor of Psychology at Elmira College in New York, where he conducts research on the diagnosis and management of learning and attention problems. He earned his doctorate in school psychology from Syracuse University, New York.

Further reading/resources

Lovett BJ (2010), Extended Time Accommodations for Students with Disabilities: Answers to Five Fundamental Questions, Review of Educational Research, 80, 611–38.

Lovett BJ and Leja AM (2013), Students’ Perceptions of Testing Accommodations: What We Know, What We Need to Know, and Why It Matters, Journal of Applied School Psychology, 29, 72–89.

Phillips SE (1994), High-Stakes Testing Accommodations: Validity versus Disabled Rights, Applied Measurement in Education, 7, 93–120.

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October 2013