Fairer Accommodations for all

The general view of educational accommodations is that they level the playing field, and therefore, to qualify, one has to pass some educational tests that show that a “disability” exists. The problem with calling it a disability is that being disabled does not necessarily have anything to do with outcomes (unlike say, physical disabilities). It is entirely possible for someone that is “disabled” to do better on an exam unaided than someone that is not. In this sense, many of these “disabilities” are unlike blindness, hearing loss, and other physical handicaps, and more akin to a general inability to do well in school.

Given that stupidity and ADHD both have large effects on educational outcomes, it would seem that they should receive the same type of treatment, but for someone reason, society only considers the impact of ADHD worth dealing with, and not stupidity. This is not to say that low IQ people cannot be educated, but rather than it simply takes more effort. It would therefore seem reasonable to have an accommodation that essentially says: “For every 10 points of IQ that you have above 100, you get <arbitrary number> of minutes less in class, and for every 10 points of IQ that you are below 100, you get <arbitrary number> of minutes more in class.” Given that IQ is centered around 100, this is guaranteed (in the aggregate) to have the same aggregate instruction time as giving everyone the same amount of class time.

While tracking does have some disadvantages, on the whole, they mostly seem to be implementation details. Making the tracks more fluid where possible would solve many of the problems that develop over time, and randomly assigning teachers to teach different classes would solve the problem of less skilled teachers teaching the lower tracks. Additionally, even though there would be a fair number of tracks (~6 would cover 95% of the population) given the sizes of high schools (average grade size for all levels is 100+, even excluding people below 85) so it can be done or the grouping sizes can be reduced (the US army has an standard of about 85 as below that level one is not capable of soldiering, so the range can be reduced to 85 to 130, with people below that going elsewhere).

Aside from the absence of tracking as an accommodation, there is a larger problem with accommodations as a whole, namely that they aide people that don’t have a problem in addition to those that do. Examples of what I would call “fair” accommodations are things like textbooks in braille. This is something that helps blinds students, but for sighted students confers no advantage. Other examples include getting directions read aloud, large type on tests,  and auditory amplification devices.

On the other hand, there are many accommodations that will aid just about everyone who receives it, disabilities or not. The simplest example of this is extra time. While there may be students with a “disability” whose problem is solved with extra time, many non-disabled students would function better with extra time as well. Other examples include medication (those for ADHD and ADD come to mind, but there are probably others), and use of a calculator.

Additionally, the number of people that are getting these types of accommodations is growing dramatically. According to an article in the NY Sun, 25% of students are getting some measure of accommodations on exams, and by high school 20% of males have been diagnosed with ADHD (not including anything else, like ADD) . While it is true that not all of these are of second type of accommodations, a large enough number are, to the point where “That’s a percentage which is large enough basically to invalidate the test.”

As a solution, I would propose getting rid of either all type two accommodations, or granting them to everyone that asks for it (and making a note of that in the transcripts, SAT score reports, etc). The simple reason for this is that it would create a true level playing field. While there are those that say that the field would only be level with the accommodations (extra time can’t really be called extra if anyone can get it), the reality is that people are inherently unequal. There will be some people that are better than others in some or all subjects no matter what the respective effort is. This fact will not change. It will not go away when accommodations are granted. It simply grants a boost to some selected population (and one could argue that it is selected poorly).

Instead of trying to help solely those with proven “disabilities” we should try to help everyone. Given the educational attainment rate in this country, we clearly need the help, and it is the fairest thing for all students.

Second Point

The other issue is that of disclosure. It is not just that students are not on the same playing field, but that everyone else (other than the schools) are unaware of how the field is arranged. It is not as if two people are performing the same, one can imply that they are of equal ability. There is currently no way to make that determination. As such, no matter what happens with point one, there should be nothing that stops colleges or employers from seeing what accommodations were used to obtain the transcript/SAT scores that they see (note that this is not the same as sharing the disability itself, but rather its mitigation).