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Conveying Caveats on Extra Time
School Administrator, December 2020
The principal of a suburban high school with a popular STEM program has noticed a proliferation of students requesting extra time on exams because of disabilities. While harboring doubts about the legitimacy of some requests, the principal tells teachers to grant the accommodations. When these students ask for letters of recommendation, the principal thinks it is fitting to convey a caveat about the extended time, knowing it will affect performance in college and the workplace. It is appropriate to do so?
Students should not be penalized for needing an accommodation. Students with disabilities have a legal plan through either an individualized education plan or a Section 504 Plan. If a student needs additional time for testing completion, this is typically indicated in the student’s plan. The teacher should have known this and actually had no need to ask permission of the principal.
If students are requesting extra time when it is not part of their IEP or 504, appropriate protocols should have been followed to make this accommodation. The plan dictates the answer to the question.
Deciding now that student accommodations should be called out in the student's college recommendation letter implies that the principal is punishing students for having a disability. This is discriminatory. The law does not allow us as educators to label or call out students because they have special needs. Putting information in a student’s recommendation letter that they need accommodations is like flashing a red light for the admissions process and saying, “This student may not be your best choice.” This is unfair to the student and indicates the individual writing the letter lacks comprehension and knowledge of special needs education. It is likely to make the college question how competent the person writing the letter is with regard to students with special needs and what the law allows in their identification.
College admission is about the whole student. The academic and personal skills a student brings to a college are determined through the student application process. If further information is needed, colleges are always free to contact the student’s high school. The college recommendation letter is the student’s first impression to those making the admissions decision. Let’s give all students the right to seek life’s opportunities without creating a bias for them before they even have a chance!
The most appropriate actions for the principal to take are to first map the process that led to so many students receiving extra time and then design, implement and evaluate adjustments to improve it. A process that depends on the judgement of one individual, the principal, to determine the need for accommodations is flawed.
Accommodations for students on high-stakes exams should only be granted following a Section 504 or individualized education plan meeting, which by law includes the students, parents and staff. The principal should refrain from including any caveat in a recommendation letter when he or she was the one who granted it. If not comfortable writing a recommendation without a caveat, then the principal should simply decline to write one.
I faced this very issue as a superintendent of a large district, and I first will say that any of these decisions should tightly align with district policy for all students understood and followed by all. Simply put, an identified student need is met with a specific course of action. Any student with a learning disability would be supported through an individualized education plan, which documents the nature of the disability and related accommodations to ensure student success.
The criteria outlined in the IEP would be the only basis for any legitimate time extension and/or other accommodations. The premise that a principal would hold authority over the process and “grant the accommodations” is therefore flawed. Likewise, it would not be appropriate to mention this in any letter of recommendation, especially since the IEP is part of the official record that travels with the transcript. Any school, organization, etc. applied to would then have access to this information. (The College Board doesn’t allow extra time on SATs, etc., unless specified on IEPs.)
In this scenario, the implication is that the principal wishes to be additionally vocal about the accommodations as a proactive (and punitive?) counterbalance measure against perceived illegitimate requests. Because of the seriousness of learning disabilities and their related documentation, the principal’s own intervention in this process is inappropriate and unwarranted.
It is completely improper to convey a caveat about the extended time, whether in letters of recommendation, telephone conversations or other forms of communication. First, it’s neither legal nor appropriate for anyone other than the student in question to publicly disclose a student’s disability — be it cognitive, physical or emotional, particularly in a context in which it could compromise the student’s acceptance to a college.
Second, there is a well-defined legal process for determining whether a student may receive accommodations on exams and what form those accommodations may take. It is not the teachers’ or the principal’s prerogative to grant or reject requests for accommodations. If an accommodation is sought, it can be authorized only by the IEP team and must follow ADA or IDEA regulations and guidance.
The most egregious aspect of the principal’s actions is the speculation that these students don’t really need this accommodation and that it is giving them an unfair advantage on exams. Accommodations are provided to level the playing field so that all students can access the curriculum and demonstrate understanding, not to give a student an advantage. Accommodations provide a student with a disability the same opportunity as is already afforded a student without a disability.
Students may have reasons for requesting time accommodations for these particular exams. Perhaps the STEM program was not designed around the concept of universal design for learning. Or perhaps the exams are being presented in a format that limits accessibility for students with disabilities. For example, the exams might entail multi-step operations that students with working memory challenges need more time to track; might require extended written responses that students with motor or organizational challenges need more time to format; or might include lengthy reading passages that students with reading fluency challenges or other print disabilities need more time to read and digest. By acting on personal speculation, the principal would discriminate against students with disabilities and would likely cause the district to face unwinnable lawsuits from parents.