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.