Implications for Extended Time Accommodations Policies

If time extensions have the potential to alter the meaning of scores and prevent tests from measuring what they are designed to measure, are extended time accommodations necessarily inappropriate? In a word, no. However, the research reviewed in this chapter suggests a need for caution and care when making decisions about altering the time limits for some examinees and not others. A comprehensive discussion of accommodation decision-making procedures is beyond the scope of the present chapter and must take into consideration laws and regulations, the ability of students with disabilities to adapt to standard conditions, and the complex issue of just how much additional time is needed (for coverage of all of these topics, see Lovett 8c Lewandowski, 2015). However, the rest of this section provides a brief overview of a psychometric framework for how decisions ideally would be made.

A first step toward appropriate decisions involves distinguishing between two sets of skills needed to succeed on a test: target skills, which the test is designed to measure, and access skills, which are assumed to be present in adequate levels in all examinees to allow for meaningful participation in the test (Ketterlin-Geller, 2008). For instance, doing well on a typical exam in a college anthropology course requires knowledge of the anthropology content on the test (a target skill) but also adequate vision (an access skill). Variance in target skills leads to construct-relevant variance in test scores; variance in access skills leads to construct-irrelevant variance in test scores. The presence of examinees with disability conditions can increase both types of variance, because a disability condition may cause an examinee to have low levels of target skills, access skills, or both, depending on what a particular test is designed to measure.

Test developers, in consultation with subject matter experts and test users, should carefully consider whether any trait that might vary with test-taking speed (e.g., fluency, automaticity, using problem-solving processes requiring deep competence) is a target skill. If after thoughtful and searching consideration there really is no place for speed-related traits in the target skill set, the time limits should be made very liberal and examinees should be able to request even more additional time (up to some logistically practical amount) without a need for extensive review of disability documentation. This is consistent with principles of “universal design” procedures for increasing accessibility of assessments for all examinees (Ketterlin-Geller, 2005). However, the research reviewed in this chapter suggests that speed-related traits often will be (or should be) among the test’s target skills. What then?

Disability experts have a key role in determining whether a particular examinee has deficits in access skills that will lead to a need for accommodations, including extended time. At independent testing agencies, higher education institutions, and private K-12 schools, disability experts (full-time internal employees and/or contracted disability consultants) who have (a) detailed knowledge of the diagnostic assessment procedures used to identify disability conditions as well as (b) knowledge of the task requirements of the tests for which accommodations are being requested should review disability documentation submitted by examinees requesting additional time. A similar process exists in public K-12 schools, where clinically trained professionals conduct a special education evaluation and then review the data with a larger set of educational and administrative professionals. The professionals should determine if a legitimate disability condition (e.g., a learning disability) is present (based on whether the submitted data shows that official diagnostic criteria for the condition are met), and if so, the evidence for deficits in access skills should be carefully scrutinized. If the examinee has a deficit in one or more access skills, accommodations then may be appropriate. In particular, if the examinee has a deficit in a speed-related access skill, extended time accommodations may be appropriate.

Consider the example of Susan, a 21-year-old college student with a diagnosis of a learning disability in reading who is applying for accommodations on a test used for admission to graduate/professional schools. Susan might submit documentation that includes reports from psychological evaluations, transcripts from college and high school, score reports from college admissions tests, information about when and where she has received accommodations before, and a personal statement describing how her learning disability affects her life, including her educational and test-taking experiences. A disability professional can determine whether Susan has provided sufficient evidence of actually meeting the official diagnostic criteria for a learning disability in reading and then can go on to search for evidence of deficits in relevant access skills. Perhaps Susan has consistently obtained below-average scores on norm-referenced diagnostic tests measuring her reading fluency and timed reading comprehension skills, and she also performed at the 10th percentile on the SAT critical reading section without accommodations but at the 40th percentile on the ACT reading section with extended time; this generally would be evidence consistent with a need for additional time to access exams, although the disability professional should always take all of the documentation into account.2

Variations in Susan’s case show some of the complexities of accommodations decisionmaking. If Susan were requesting accommodations on a test where reading speed or reading fluency were part of the target skill set, her deficits in these skills would not make extended time appropriate; a student who had orthopedic problems leading to slowed motor speed (an access skill rather than a target skill) still might require extended time on such a test. If Susan showed no deficits in timed reading skills but had evidence suggesting that she takes longer than most people to retrieve information from memory and apply that information to problem-solving, extended time might be inappropriate because a test’s target skills might include being able to recall and apply information under time-limited conditions. In short, it is difficult to describe how decisions should be made without detailed information about the examinee’s disability evidence and similarly detailed information about the target skills and access skills of the exam in question.

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