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Reader Request

A reader e-mails me in response to the final comments on my last post: “Professor Rizzo, I really need to hear more about some of those nutty things the college allows. Can you share one more with us?”

Your wish is my command.

Students with Learning Disabilities.

Let’s not question whether this makes sense, or whether students can mine the system to their advantage. Let’s be charitable and assume that every single disability I get is legitimate. (As an aside, you would be astonished to see exactly what students tend to be learning disabled, it was quite a surprise to me).

One common exemption these students are given is double-time on exams. While this may or may not be an OK thing to do (for example, part of what I think a good economist make-up is an ability to think on your feet quickly, so now I am no longer able to test that aspect of my material), let’s just assume it is. My view is that if I give one student double time, then I should give all students double time. And I do that. For example, rather than giving my exams in class (in my Intro class), which lasts for 75 minutes, I get a common exam time and room and all of my students are allowed 3 hours to complete it.

That may or may not be absurd, but here is something that is. All of the final exam slots here are scheduled for 3 hours. Well, I usually write a 90 minute final, and then allow all students to spend 3 hours thinking about their exams. This accommodates everyone, so I thought.

On more than one occasion, I have had students with special needs complain to me that this practice was unfair to them. And when they make arrangements via our college to have testing accommodations, I have been asked to allow them not just 3 hours, which is already double time that I give the entire class, but you guessed it, six hours.

My aim here is not to discuss how pervasive the special needs problem is, whether we should do anything about it, etc. My point is that even when I am “doing the right thing” by accommodating my students, that is not good enough. If you give everyone the same privilege, some believe that it entitles them to even more. You know what I think of that. I’ve run regressions on course performance for these students, and the results are interesting, but I don’t have proper controls to make any serious comments about how well they really do. That might be a nice topic for a research project.

5 Responses to “Reader Request”

  1. Harry says:

    The system would barely work in Europe, which operates on a thirty-hour work week plus a third of the summer off. Can you imagine the fuss at the Sorbonne asking proctors to sit around for six hours to accommodate Van Gogh, who was disabled in many ways, to take his Bastiat exam? Surement, there would be a strike.

    You may be interested that the Apple software spell checker in my phone does not have “strike” in its vocabulary, nor does it have the neuter singular possessive pronoun its.

  2. Mark says:

    I just had a student who, for the first two tests, claimed a disability that prevented her from being able to fill in the bubbles on a multiple choice test. For some reason, she was able to do it herself on the third test. It didn’t matter, she scored second in her class of 140 students, but I just couldn’t understand the inconsistency.

  3. Rod says:

    I had the good fortune to take a “philosophy of mathematics” class with a blind student, Peter Durand, who depended on a reader to read his textbooks for him. The course was really about the foundation of mathematics : formal systems, minimum requirements for formal systems as complex as real numbers, logic, set theory, including different kinds of infinite sets, Godel’s proof, logical paradoxes and other things of an entirely theoretical nature that math majors like Peter Duran had studied in other courses. Peter ran circles (and ellipses and other conic sections) around the rest of us in that class. I got an A in that class, but that meant that the A+ Peter got was way up the professor’s asymptote.

    Yes, Peter had a handicap, blindness. But he also had an edge in having developed an understanding of three-dimensional objects and real numbers without sight or symbols to memorize.

    The only accommodations he sought was to have his guide dog with him at all times and to have a reader to be his eyes. I doubt the government paid for any of that in 1966.

  4. Rod says:

    Is Rochester on the Honor System, where students are honor bound not to cheat on tests? At Mount Holyoke, the professors would leave the “bluebooks” on the desk, and the students could then take them to their rooms, to the library, or to a desk right there in the classroom.

  5. Aake Kapy says:

    Interesting post.

    @Harry: I live in Europe (I hope that Finland is still considered part of Europe, not just a province of imperial Russia) and 6h exams are the norm. Double time is out of the question so people with learning disablities get an automatic raise in their grade.

    Blind people will fail all written tests, so special provisions are OK. That’s because if you hire a blind person with perfect grades, you will be aware of that blindness. But I don’t think that you are obligated to tell that you need special need provisions to perform at the level you tested at if you have ADD or dyslexia.

    I was diagnosed with ADD a few years after I got my study place in medicine. ADD seemed to have more to do with my working memory not correlating with my other cognitive functions, than with absolute working memory. Stupidity and laziness are learning disabilities if ADD is. Stupidity can take many forms, and one of them is poor working memory i.e. ADD. If my cognitive profile is fit to only very limited tasks, why shouldn’t the tests show it? Special provisions for special needs are just a manifestation of the weaknesses of the tests in the first place.

    I’m a poor student, and it was evident in high school. I was still smart enough to get good grades and get into a good study place in university. In university my study skills failed me like they failed me in high school. I think I can be a skilled craftsman like a doctor, but I can’t make it academically. Demanding masters degrees for everything selects for wrong traits, but solution is not to make masters easy enough for anyone to have.

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