Extra time is not for all

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On April 29, an article was printed in the Chicago Tribune regarding the high number of Illinois public high school juniors who receive extra time or other methods of assistance while taking the ACT.

They also addressed how the help and/or extra time affects their scores. New Trier was featured prominently in the article, igniting conversations among students and faculty about the role of testing accommodations and how that influences the steep competition to get into college.

The most controversial part of the article states that of those who received special accommodations—in which New Trier leads Illinois with 170—many received scores in the 30s out of an ACT maximum of 36. It then questions a possible advantage those students might have in the already aggressive North Shore academic environment.

Several students and staff identified a flaw in that argument. Granting a student with a learning disability extra time during the test is meant to level the playing field, not give them an advantage.

It might take a student with dyslexia twice as long to read an English passage and regardless of how much time they are given they still have to come up with the answers on their own.

According to Stephanie Farruggia, the Special Education department chair, incorrect assumptions are made quite frequently about the intelligence of students with learning disabilities.  “The functioning cognitive levels of these students are so varied,” said Farruggia.  “We have special education kids who are in four level classes.  Furthermore, there is a variety of reasons for special education, which often surprises people,” she added.

One disorder that the special education department works with is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), with which junior Eli Gitelman is diagnosed.  Although ADHD qualifies for extended time in most cases, Gitelman decided not to use it.  “If you take extra time you have to sit through the extra time and wait for everyone to finish before you can leave,” he said.  Although he does not use the time due to his own personal preference, Gitelman does agree that for those who need it, methods such as extended time on test like the ACT can make a difference.

The distinction between students who need special accommodations for the ACT and those who just want it was another controversial subject in the Tribune article.  In the article, a New Trier senior who asked not to be named was described as wondering whether students occasionally manipulate the system to “gain a competitive edge, while others, like him, struggle to get the assistance they need.”

The question of whether or not other students with learning disabilities should be given extended time was hotly contested among students.  Gitelman believes that the whole point of the ACT is to test student’s knowledge with in a time frame, and that even students with learning disabilities should finish in the normal time.  “If you are taking medicine, you should be able to focus and take the test,” Gitelman added.

Contrary to what many students may believe the process to get extended time for testing is incredibly thorough and often takes weeks to process.  Additionally, not everyone is approved to get extended time, as senior Claire Revord knows firsthand.

Revord was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder at the end of her junior year, which is late than normal for most individuals who are diagnosed.  Perhaps it was because it was her junior year, but the ACT clerk Revord’s mother contacted to get her daughter extended time denied her application, and accused her and her mother of lying.  “It was really disappointing because extended time would have helped me so much,” Revord added.

That type of unsuccessful experience is one the Peg Stevens, New Trier’s Testing Coordinator is always unhappy to hear about, but is also, she explains, one that New Trier has not decision in.  “Ultimately, New Trier has nothing to do with the decision making process for extended time,” added Stevens.

New Trier mainly tries to act as an advocate for the student, and Stevens works to prepare all applications for testing accommodations.  If applying for testing accommodations for the ACT paperwork on the student is first assembled by Stevens who signs and sends it off to the parents, who then send the final information to the testing center.  It is a grueling process and unfortunately sometimes student’s applications are denied.

For students who feel they are struggling like the anonymous senior quoted in the Chicago Tribune article, Stevens urges students to talk to their teacher or advisor, who can start filing the paperwork to get the student help if it is needed.  “No one should be struggling to get the assistance they need,” said Stevens.  “Everyone has the student’s best interest in mind.”

Of course, there are those who abuse the system.  A few students who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity spoke about people they knew who obtained Adderall and other focus enhancing drugs to help them do well on the ACT, or persuade doctors to write notes attesting to their difficulty concentrating.  The presence of those who cheat the system cannot be avoided, but the vast majority of students who use testing accommodations do not.  One thing is for sure however, this is a debate that will not be ending any time soon.


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