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Standards in schools have less meaning


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001

It took decades of social promotion, grade inflation and high school graduates who could barely spell their own names, but education reformers finally awoke to the fact that lowering standards for disadvantaged children was not the way to promote success.

These students may have walked out of school with a degree in their hands but everyone understood the sheepskin had lost its value as an indicator of academic ability. Employers looked to other measures, such as employment tests and a college degree, to evaluate potential employees.

Standards are the infrastructure of any academic institution. Class grades are meaningless unless every student in class is measured by the same yardstick. Degrees are devalued when certain students are given an easier ride.

The problem is, holding everyone to the same standards is no longer legal.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, a law intended to give disabled people equal access to education and employment, is being used with shocking frequency by students with alleged learning disabilities demanding substantive accommodations in courses and testing. This is especially true at the university level, where undergraduate and graduate students claiming to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, dyslexia or other cognitive disorders are being given up to double time and a half on tests, notetakers in class and adjustments in class and degree requirements.

What started out as a way to give wheelchair-bound students a ramp into classrooms has become the hottest game in competitive academics. Claims of learning disabilities have exploded over the decade since the ADA was passed, now constituting 90 percent of all accommodations granted. This year, about 50,000 college-bound test-takers will be given the SAT under special conditions. In 1990-91 the number was 17,000.

Where are all these mentally challenged young people coming from? The inner city? No. The poorest rural communities? Not here, either. They are coming from the ranks of private schools. In 1999, in California, four times as many private school students took the SAT under special conditions than did public school students. And we are not talking about a reader for the blind or assistance for those who cannot hold a pencil. The accommodations were mostly extra time for students with cognitive disabilities.

Objections to this come to mind so fast and furious it's hard to know where to begin.

Let's say these students really do have problems reading and processing information. Isn't this part of what tests evaluate? For some people math comes easily, others struggle. But a math test isn't graded based on who tried the hardest or who overcame the most cognitive challenges. The best grades go to those who answered the most questions correctly within the constraints of the test -- which often turns out to be those for whom math seems to come naturally.

Yet, under the ADA, when learning problems are technically diagnosed this paradigm changes and foundering students are given the right to an artificial boost.

Disabilities advocates say extra time, readers and the ability to bring reference materials into the test, aren't advantages but merely level the playing field and correct for the disability. But no one knows if this is so. There is simply no scientific evidence proving that by giving a particular student double time to take a math test he has been precisely accommodated without giving him a competitive advantage. Why double time and not triple? Why not just an extra 15 minutes or so?

Colleges, universities, testing organizations and professional licensing boards have put up with all this to avoid expensive litigation. The disabled have pushed their interests in court in chilling ways.

One of the most troubling cases involves Marilyn Bartlett, who sued the New York State Board of Law Examiners in 1993 after it refused to grant additional accommodations for her dyslexia on the Bar exam. She has failed the test five times, the last time after being given 50 percent more time, a private room in which to take the test and someone to read the questions aloud. The litigation is still ongoing.

But what happens if Bartlett ultimately prevails, which it appears she will? Are judges also going to be required to give her extra time to submit briefs and filings? And who is going to tell her pay-by-the-hour clients that it will take her twice as long to prepare their case?

No one, since the learning disabled don't just want accommodations, they also claim a right to keep it a secret.

On Feb. 7, disability advocates declared another victory, having settled a suit against the Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the Graduate Record Examination among others. ETS agreed to stop its practice of flagging standardized tests where special conditions were provided the disabled. The lawsuit said the designation was stigmatizing.

Now the company in charge of the SAT is under pressure to do the same.

The expansive community of ADD sufferers and dyslexics have successfully taken the "standard" out of standardized tests and academics.

It's time for the pendulum to swing back.

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