Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reasonably accommodating

I said “reasonably”!

Sometimes my students need a little extra assistance. I understand. In the past I have printed out tests in a large font for a student with poor vision. I have set up my classroom to make space for the sign-language interpreter for a deaf student. I have used the testing center to allow time-and-a-half on exams for students with diagnosed learning disabilities. That's what our Student Assistance Program is for. It helps students succeed where they might otherwise fail. We call it “reasonable accommodation.”

Unfortunately, some of our accommodated students appear not to understand how it's supposed to work. Occasionally we get someone who decides that “accommodation” means “whatever I want”:

“Dr. Z, I can take the exam next week.”

“But the exam is this week.”

“Yeah, but I need more time.”

“Yes, you get more time to take the exam, but you still have to take the exam when your classmates do. There'll be a copy of the exam in the testing center for you.”

“But I'm not ready!”

Math isn't the only thing the student has difficulty understanding.

But students like that are rare. Most students with learning disabilities leap at the opportunity to succeed and dutifully jump through the hoops my college requires in order to take advantage of its special student support services. Naturally enough, the learning disabilities related to math tend to manifest themselves most dramatically among the students taking the low-level developmental courses like arithmetic and prealgebra. Students taking higher-level courses either do not suffer from dyslexia or dyscalculia or have learned to control the problem, thereby leading to success in math.

Not too long ago, though, I ran into a striking exception to this general rule. It was in a multivariate calculus class. We were in the final weeks of the semester, with only one chapter left to cover in the textbook. (Line integrals, anyone?) One of my students came up to me after class and handed me a note. It was a memo from his private counselor, who was offering me some advice about why my student was struggling to maintain a C in the class. The counselor was a clinical psychologist who had seen my student twice. He had some specific observations and recommendations:
Based on my interviews and initial assessments, it is my opinion that Mr. X has above average intellectual capacity, but suffers from being overwhelmed with too much information after about 20 minutes. Therefore I suggest that Mr. X be granted at least two preliminary accommodations. First, he should be allowed to take frequent breaks. Second, he should be allowed additional time to complete timed assignments in class, especially exams. I would suggest he be given twice as long to complete such tasks.
A double-time accommodation on exams is quite unusual but not unheard of. The notion of frequent time-outs, however, is rather more daunting. Exactly how, pray tell, is this supposed to work? We may shift gears multiple times during a class period as we solve problems, work quizzes, review homework, and present new material, but class time is at a premium and we can't take a break every twenty minutes. It doesn't work.

And double-time on in-class quizzes isn't particularly feasible either. I use them as highly focused evaluation and teaching tools. The students' results tell me, of course, how well they're keeping up. And my immediate presentation of the solution on the board takes advantage of their momentarily intense receptivity. The students who got it right preen a bit as they see my solution matching theirs. The students who got it wrong watch wide-eyed and often have “Aha!” moments. (“Oh, is that all I had to do?”) Teachable moments.

But not if Mr. X had to be sent from the room to accommodate his extra ration of time on the quiz. By the time he came back he would have missed my presentation of the solution and missed the learning opportunity. (And even if I had sent an advance copy of the quiz to the testing center so that he could have his double-time before class began, the logistics were impossible. My class was an early morning class and the testing center wasn't even open until after my class began.)

On top of everything else, Mr. X was trying to make an end-run around the counselors and staff of our testing center, the people who evaluate students and make recommendations for accommodation. For fairly obvious reasons, faculty members don't welcome external evaluations by private counselors. We don't know the people who make them. We do know, however, that any desired opinion is available on the outside. (Court trials, after all, never seem to lack for experts on both sides of any given issue.) I told Mr. X to take his evaluation documents to the testing center for review by college personnel. He was not happy about that and said, correctly, that it was probably too late for the testing center to evaluate him before the semester ran out.

In most respects, though, Mr. X was lucky. He was pulling a solid C in my class and I was able to show him that he was in little danger of failing the class. He squeaked through with a modest margin to spare. What he wanted, of course, was a B, but I wasn't quite that accommodating.

16 comments:

AnyEdge said...

In most actual jobs, you don't get extra time if you can't finish in time. At least, not more than once or twice a year, say. If you make a habit of it, they find someone who can do it correctly on time.

The point of education is to make a person a viable member of society, capable of surviving first, and contributing second.

I know it isn't PC, but surely you must be tempted to say: "I'm sorry. This is what you have to do to pass this class. If you can't do that, then go take a course that you can pass." With the ellipses being: 'if you cannot pass enough classes, then you are not meant to graduate from college'.

Zeno said...

Yes, I am tempted to say that. What I don't know, of course, is whether a learning disability in school necessarily transfers into a performance disability in some future line of work. I fear it might, although my hope is that the accommodated learning process will ameliorate the students' problems and allow them to achieve a level of mastery similar to that of their classmates.

Nevertheless, I often wonder about those students who need accommodation to pass professional certification tests like the bar exam. If it takes you 50% longer to qualify as an attorney, will it also take you 50% longer to do an attorney's job? Will your clients end up paying a 50% premium for your billable hours or will you be offering a discount?

Liz Ditz said...

Hi Zeno & AnyEdge,

1. Don't confuse accommodations as specified by the College Board with accommodations the student actually needs to provide an accurate assessment of the student's mastery of the material.

For example: As of 2008 at the high school level, in order to have the accommodation of using a computer for the written portion of the SAT, the student must (a) have a documented disability be granted extra time for all exams (b) be granted extra time for exams (typically time and a half) and (c) use a computer for written exams.

It doesn't matter if the student needs extra time -- it's part of a basket of accommodations. By the time they are seniors in high school, some (but not all) students are self-aware enough to know which accommodations they actually need, and what are unnecessary.

New technology & the future of learning disabilities: I'm really curious about what will develop in the next decade. Many young adult dyslexics (read well, but slowly) are using speech->text (Dragon Naturally Speaking) and text->speech (Intel Reader, Macintosh's native read-aloud capability) as a matter of course.

2. School accommodations and transition to working life: It depends upon the person's disability and the accommodations and work-arounds that he or she has developed.

3. "My Brain Is Full" -- Boy am I familiar with that, especially for me & learning mathematics. I wonder where resources such as Khan Academy fit into this. The opportunity to hear and see explanations over and over again as often as you need to might be a game-changer.

Kathie said...

Liz Ditz, I agree whole-heartedly with your second point in particular, as test-taking performance is not always a perfect predictor for real-life job performance -- unless one becomes a professional test-taker, I suppose ;-)


Meandering off-topic, I recommend today's article, "College ratings ignites debate over core requirements":
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/19/AR2010111907408.html?hpid=topnews

Yikes! When I was at Cal, the College of Letters & Science required undergrads to complete 12 semester units in each of three areas: Humanities, Science and Social Sciences. Further, the Science component had to include at least one 3-unit course each in the physical and biological realms (I fulfilled the rest with Math), while Social Science had to include at least one 3-unit course each in US History and Civics (presumably to fulfill requirements of the Morrill Act for Land Grant Universities). All L&S students had to complete a year of English Language and Composition in the English, Speech or Comparative Literature department. Three 4-unit semesters of foreign language was required, unless one could manage (like me) to "test out" at admission based on knowledge previously acquired of a second language (typically in high school, or learned from family or living in a foreign land, etc.).

The amazing thing is that, as burdensome as I found these requirements at the time, some of the courses I least wanted to take in college have proven to afford useful general background in "real life"!

Kathie said...

Oops, sorry Zeno, forgot to give you credit as well for your comment, "What I don't know, of course, is whether a learning disability in school necessarily transfers into a performance disability in some future line of work."

I'm a slower Portuguese writer and translator than others I know, yet my work often turns out ultimately better than theirs because I've taken more time and care. Sloppy speed is not necessarily a virtue, compared to slow caution (within limits of course).

Miki Z. said...

This post has really had me thinking since I read it. I'm strongly in favor of reasonable accommodation. In societies like the U.S. where your chance of a reasonably long and healthy life are directly correlated to your level of education, we should be reticent to exclude anyone from receiving it.

(One of the persistent ironies of "conservative" politics, of course, is that the same people who will vote against funding such accommodations will also vote against making it possible for those without higher education to attain a modicum of financial independence and stability through unemployment benefits, state supplemented health care, etc.)

I'm even sympathetic to the student wanting double time, breaks, etc., but I have only met a few professors who expected students to learn all of the material through class or not at all. None of them have been mathematics professors; textbooks exist for more than providing problem sets. The time and money spent on an end run around the Student Assistance Program by paying an outside adviser might be better spent on a tutor.

The cynic in me says that if you're overwhelmed by new information after twenty minutes, there is an easy solution: study the material before class; then it isn't new.

Zeno said...

The cynic in you, Miki, or the sage? Reading ahead is definitely the most effective solution to the student's problem. That's not the same thing as demanding mastery through self-tuition; it's simply a constructive step to gain some familiarity with material before the instructor presents it in class. It's smart and effective.

Miki Z. said...

Yes, I left out a few words:

The cynic in me says that (the student is just too lazy to be bothered studying ahead because) if you're overwhelmed by new information after twenty minutes ...

Kathie said...

Miki and Zeno, the other side of the coin is what I did to "game the system" my first year of Portuguese, when we had an hour-quiz on each of our textbook's 20 chapters.

I soon realized that the next day in class, the professor would always have us sight-read aloud from some of the dialogues scattered throughout the next chapter (though I could never anticipate which one(s) he'd choose). Clearly he wanted to get some measure of how well we were learning to read aloud material that we'd never seen before. My standards for myself were quite high (my being an older student, and all), and I was dismayed to find I wasn't doing as well at it as I'd have hoped (partly due to nerves).

So, after having spent a grueling previous evening reviewing the last chapter of the textbook (plus classroom and workbook notes) for the next day's quiz -- and despite feeling drained -- I'd spend the whole next evening (i.e., of the day of the quiz) practicing all the roles in the next chapter's dialogues out loud, so I wouldn't stumble over them as badly in my "sight-reading" in class as I might have otherwise, or as my classmates would.

Fortunately, I soon discovered that cats are very patient listeners, and not discriminating about what's being said to them, so long as it's in a kindly voice.

Miki Z. said...

That doesn't seem like gaming the system at all, to me. I follow a similar strategy in my Japanese course. Had the instructor truly wanted "cold" readings, it would be simple enough to project a reading not available to you prior to the course onto a screen and have people read from there.

A student trying to game the system doesn't study harder, they reach for an exception to the rules. I don't know specifically about Zeno's school, but most schools have a wealth of formal and informal tutoring available for free in addition to student-run study groups.

Kathie said...

Aw thanks for the encouragement, Miki!

I never felt guilty (just over-worked, albeit clever). Of course, my goal extended far beyond just doing the bare minimum needed to snag an "A" in the course: I actually needed to learn enough Portuguese to travel solo to the Azores someday and commence researching my lost ancestry (especially genealogy, in archival records) -- and even with my workaholic attitude, I was pretty at sea (so to speak) for the first ½ of my first trip ;-)

Kathie said...

Miki, by the time I reached 4th-semester Portuguese, we were in fact cold-reading articles from Brazilian magazines and online articles aloud in class. The problem during earlier semesters is reading more advanced material aloud without sufficient comprehension.

HarveyRequiem said...

I agree about learning disability not necessarily translating into performance disability. My sister had terrible issues learning--especially in taking tests. She had such test-anxiety that she would get physically ill--sometimes violently so. But when she worked with my mom, she did great, and the teachers had trouble believing the work my mom showed them from home was of the same girl. Unfortunately, the "you are too stupid to learn" stigma from the teachers as well as my mom (who constantly drew attention to my own stronger academic ability) has followed her to this day and been internalized so it seems she doesn't believe she ever can succeed. I think she could, especially with her amazing persistence to succeed when she wants to (combined with the free tutoring and proper accommodations for the crippling test anxiety). She's not stupid by any means. And in terms of performance in the real world, I think she'd be able to blow them all away. But since she's internalized that "you aren't smart, so don't try" stigma from school, she won't even bother.

HarveyRequiem said...

On the subject of student entitlement:

had to take all my major classes in a single year, five classes per quarter for four quarters, because my actual alma mater didn't actually teach that major but had an affiliate association with another school. It wasn't too bad at first, but by the end of the second quarter I was losing momentum and getting worn out like I'd never been worn out before.

Near the end of the fourth quarter, some of my teachers--including the hardest, scariest and most demanding teacher in my major--found out about the fact that I was an affiliate student and asked me why I hadn't asked for accommodation. They hadn't even been aware of the affiliate program, and when they found out I had been carrying five demanding major classes every quarter--and still never falling below a quarterly GPA of 3.4 despite my zombie-like state--they told me that they had thought I was a transfer student and if they'd known about my situation they would have given me some special leniency in grading, rather than grading me exactly like all the others students who were not carrying the same load.

Why didn't I ask for accommodation? It never occurred to me to ask. I was under the impression that education is my own responsibility, even if I was paying for it, and that if I couldn't keep up it was my own fault. I was also under the impression that accommodations were for things like dyslexia or that sort of thing, genuine medical or psychological problems. So even if I had considered asking for accommodations I would have dropped the idea immediately as an action of entitlement, or of asking for special favors.

And yet it can be argued that I could have been accommodated, since I was under an unusual workload that was not my fault (like, if it were due to inattention when scheduling my classes) but was written into the system. Generally, major classes are not set up to be done five at a time, so I was being held to the same standard as students who were taking demanding major classes with easier classes in a comfortable mix, with no more than four classes total per quarter.

I'm not defending your entitled student at all, BTW. I'm amazed at how many of these kids do seem to think "accommodation" means "anything I want", when other students who may have a legitimate need (though not from a medical/psychological disability) just plod along and put in a double effort because they don't think they're eligible for an accommodation. I have to wonder how many students who might have a legitimate reason for accommodation do the same, just finding ways to adjust and overcome the issue one their own.

Although you get this kind of attitude in kids on jobs too. I can't tell you how many times I've either had to work late or been called in on my day off because some entitled spoiled brat decided to go on a date or to a concert and just called off or didn't show.

Though in my case, I think my teachers were just impressed because I was doing at least as well if not better than the other students*, who I often overheard expressing joy that they'd managed to swing a B- or a C (when to me those grades are the equivalent of a C- or an F respectively). When they found out what I was contending with and still managing to do what I was doing, I think their reaction was mostly in retrospect. I still doubt I would have gotten any such accommodation had I been audaciously entitled enough to ask from the start, and my affiliate status never came up until I was leaving and everyone was asking "why?"


*Not to toot my own horn, but as Sherlock Holmes said, "To underestimate one's self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one's own powers". There were students who were as good as me and some who were better, but the majority were not and that's a fact.

HarveyRequiem said...

I had to take all my major classes in a single year, five classes per quarter for four quarters, because my actual alma mater didn't actually teach that major but had an affiliate association with another school. It wasn't too bad at first, but by the end of the second quarter I was losing momentum and getting worn out like I'd never been worn out before.

Near the end of the fourth quarter, some of my teachers--including the hardest, scariest and most demanding teacher in my major--found out about the fact that I was an affiliate student and asked me why I hadn't asked for accommodation. They hadn't even been aware of the affiliate program, and when they found out I had been carrying five demanding major classes every quarter--and still never falling below a quarterly GPA of 3.4 despite my zombie-like state--they told me that they had thought I was a transfer student and if they'd known about my situation they would have given me some special leniency in grading, rather than grading me exactly like all the others students who were not carrying the same load.

Why didn't I ask for accommodation? It never occurred to me to ask. I was under the impression that education is my own responsibility, even if I was paying for it, and that if I couldn't keep up it was my own fault. I was also under the impression that accommodations were for things like dyslexia or that sort of thing, genuine medical or psychological problems. So even if I had considered asking for accommodations I would have dropped the idea immediately as an action of entitlement, or of asking for special favors.

And yet it can be argued that I could have been accommodated, since I was under an unusual workload that was not my fault (like, if it were due to inattention when scheduling my classes) but was written into the system. Generally, major classes are not set up to be done five at a time, so I was being held to the same standard as students who were taking demanding major classes with easier classes in a comfortable mix, with no more than four classes total per quarter.

I'm not defending your entitled student at all, BTW. I'm amazed at how many of these kids do seem to think "accommodation" means "anything I want", when other students who may have a legitimate need (though not from a medical/psychological disability) just plod along and put in a double effort because they don't think they're eligible for an accommodation. I have to wonder how many students who might have a legitimate reason for accommodation do the same, just finding ways to adjust and overcome the issue one their own.

Though in my case, I think my teachers were just impressed because I was doing at least as well if not better than the other students*, who I often overheard expressing joy that they'd managed to swing a B- or a C (when to me those grades are the equivalent of a C- or an F respectively). When they found out what I was contending with and still managing to do what I was doing, I think their reaction was mostly in retrospect. I still doubt I would have gotten any such accommodation had I been audaciously entitled enough to ask from the start, and my affiliate status never came up until I was leaving and everyone was asking "why?"

Miki Z. said...

It's the reasonableness that's at issue, I think. The student services people (whatever they are called at any particular school) are there to help the school allocate limited resources to best help everyone get through classes. Most of the instructors I've known are willing to make accommodations for things like attendance policies even without the involvement of student services because these types don't require any real resources, but when a student needs something that requires additional resources (such as double time testing -- this needs either more instructor time or a dedicated testing center), fairness suggests that an outsider's dictates be taken under advisement but that they need not be honored without question.

To me, the entitlement of Mr. X shows in expecting to be accommodated without going through the student services office -- even after being told about it -- not in the specifics of the requested accommodation.