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“Extra Time” in School Is Just Another Way the Wealthy Game the System

Image via Time

Families with money are using doctors and psychologists to get their kids a leg up, at the expense of those playing by the rules.

The most polarizing issue in my high school’s community didn’t relate to religion or politics. It was the issue of extra time. Extra time, which is often given for in-class assignment and standardized tests, typically offers students who qualify 1.5 to double the amount of time to complete an assessment as peers who don’t qualify. While extra time may be given for a host of reasons, it is usually given when a student is diagnosed with a processing difference such as ADHD, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. The problem, however, is when families take advantage of this accommodation for students who don’t actually need it.

Some critics of extra time object to its existence entirely. They argue that it is unnecessary, unjustified, and doesn’t prepare students for the real world. They argue that extra time is not only unfair to other students, but it is unfair to the recipients themselves. After all, there is no extra time in the real, working world, the argument goes. Furthermore, ADHD, one of the leading causes of extra time prescriptions, only lingers until adulthood in 1/2 of children that previously exhibited symptoms. So, in the end, it may not go on to affect the lives of many adults in the so-called real world.

I don’t go that far. The problem is not with extra time in-and-of-itself. It can be a useful way to “level the playing field” and let students display their knowledge, even if they process information in a manner different from their peers. The problem is how extra time is disproportionately allocated to families with money, who use doctors and psychologists to give their kids a leg up at the expense of those who play by the rules.

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I attended a high school in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, adjacent to the sixth-wealthiest zip code in America. The annual tuition at my high school was $38,800. Clearly, parents, where I went to school, would do anything to get a leg up for their kids. And that’s where the problem starts.

College admissions are stressful everywhere, but particularly at schools like mine. The pressure to go to the best college weighs on students and families alike. And, with the SAT as important as it is to college admissions, I saw more than a handful of classmates and friends magically decide they had ADHD just around the time when we all had to take the test.

At my high school, 18% of students qualified for extended time, while the natural proportion of learning disabilities is just 2%. The problem is even worse outside of my high school. According to the College Board, up to 46% of students at elite private high schools get testing accommodations such as extra time. That doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

Typically, one would need to see a specialist to be diagnosed with one of these disorders and then extensively tested to be referred for extra time. The steep price of seeing specialists and testing—often not covered by health insurance—can deter parents of most income levels from taking their children to be diagnosed. In the wealthy enclave where I grew up, this didn’t seem to apply. 

The students and parents in areas such as mine choose to ignore the socioeconomic unfairness that the current system causes. Families of children in low-income neighberhoods (perhaps children who genuinely do have learning disabilities) often lack the resources, time, and money to secure these diagnoses. Furthermore, it might not have even occurred to some of these parents in the first place, given they live outside of a culture where families will bend any rule to get their children ahead. All the while, the test scores of wealthy (and generally white) students are being inflated, while others are being left behind. These are families taking advantage of a system designed to help children who truly suffer from disabilities. 

Jay Brody, an SAT tutor from the Chicago suburbs puts it well: “Extra time is as good as adding a couple hundred points to a student’s SAT score.” Similarly, Sam Abrams, of Harvard University, who conducted a study on students in Washington D.C. (where the rate of students with extended time is three times the national average), states: “We see outright overperformance… [SAT] scores that, on average… would qualify you without question to the elite universities.” Standarized tests, after all, are as much an exercise in managing time as they are about mastering the material. And when you tack on extra hours, reaching a high score all the sudden becomes very tenable. 

When the California Bureau of State Audits investigated this issue, its report was literally titled, “Students May Receive Extra Time On Standardized Tests That Is Not Deserved.” 

I’m not saying that extra time itself is a problem. Rather, the current system and surrounding culture heavily favor the wealthy. Extra time is something important for children with learning disabilities, and it should definitely exist for them. But the way some people take advantage of this accommodation is beyond unfair.

Luke Egan is an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt University.