Colker’s proposed alternative would consist of a test with fewer questions and more time to process the questions and double-check answers, therefore giving students more time to actually demonstrate their knowledge. For example, Colker proposes restructuring the LSAT, the admissions test for law school, which currently has six 35-minute sections—five with 22 to 28 questions, and one essay component—and gives only one break in the three-and-a-half-hour test. It’s an “unbelievably exhausting test,” she says, remembering her one experience as a law-school applicant. Instead, Colker advocates for splitting the test into three 52-minute sections, with a break between each, and 40 percent fewer questions overall. The test would still run three hours, she says, but students of all processing abilities would have more time to answer each question.
A big problem with the current time crunch, Colker says, is that it puts the onus on students with disabilities to prove their need for extra time—to read, to process, to understand what a test is asking of them. Compiling the documents to apply for an accommodation can be costly; if denied, test takers have the option to appeal the decision, but that requires additional documentation and money. Moreover, ability isn’t binary, but the way accommodations currently work treats it as such: Either you get extra time, or you don’t.
Take, for example, a case in which a New York woman sued the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners for denying her extended time on a medical-license test—even though she had previously received extra time for a hearing impairment and dyslexia, which slowed her ability to read. When the plaintiff, Bernadette Bibber, challenged the decision, a court decided that her disability wasn’t severe enough to warrant the alternative arrangements.
To some medical professionals, this kind of scrutiny over who gets accommodations isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I look at everything but the kitchen sink,” says Marla Shapiro, an Atlanta-based developmental neuropsychologist who helps students apply for testing accommodations. “I want every K-to-12 report card. I want all standardized testing.” The evaluation is rigorous, she says, because she doesn’t recommend accommodations lightly. “Parents are paying three or four thousand dollars for these comprehensive analyses, and they expect something for it, but I’m not one to sell diagnoses,” she says. “It does such a disservice to those who are truly in need to hand it out like candy because somebody’s paying you a lot of money.”
Of course, if the tests were slowed down, other accommodations would still have to be available; getting rid of the quick pace wouldn’t alleviate the need for Braille test booklets or wheelchair accessibility. But extended time has become especially fraught because researchers note that it’s impossible to pinpoint precisely how much time a student with a disability needs in order for a test to be equitable for them. When should a disability require someone to have 100 percent extended time instead of 50 percent? Or 50 percent instead of none at all? Where and how is that line drawn?