LEARNING DISABILITIES AT UNIVERSITIES

Jonathan I. Katz

Washington University, St. Louis

[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu

 

The question of how universities should respond to students claiming to be

"learning disabled" has been a source of contention for many years (see

the articles by Ruth Shalit and by Walter Olson

for an account of this controversy). On one hand, students claiming to have learning

disabilities have come to expect many "accommodations": examinations at

times, places and under conditions of their choosing, exemption from a

variety of academic requirements (such as foreign languages or mathematics),

etc. On the other hand, universities and their faculties are properly

concerned with the integrity of their grades: a student who receives extra

time on an examination (the most common accomodation

earns a grade which is not comparable to the grades earned by

other students, and to conceal the fact of extra time on a student's

transcript is a misrepresentation of that student's accomplishment.

This is dishonest, and in other circumstances would be considered cheating.

 

The advocates of accommodations for these students often argue

that they may be very intelligent, and that they are as disabled as people

confined to wheelchairs. Even if these assertions were true they would neither

justify giving extra time on tests, nor concealing this fact. We build

ramps for people in wheelchairs, but once in the classroom they must do the

same work and take the same exams, in the same time, as all other students.

 

The accommodations often offered to those who claim "learning disablity", in particular

extra time on examinations, invite abuse. The diagnosis of learning

disability is very much a matter of judgement, and it is not difficult for

an ambitious but unscrupulous student (or parents) to find a psychologist willing to make

such a diagnosis, whatever the facts. Psychologists are professionally qualified to

diagnose learning disorders, but not to certify them as disabilities, which is a legal

and not a psychological term. The extent of abuse is shown by the fact that in at least

one high school (Greenwich High School; see the April 21, 1998 Hartford Courant )

nearly one third of the students receive special privileges for being "learning

disabled". In fact, this is becoming a national scandal; see an article in the January 9, 2000

Los Angeles Times . It is affirmative action for spoiled rich white kids.

 

Genuine learning disabilities are very unusual. By definition, they are "disabling"-not merely a

difficulty or a weakness, but so severe as to interfere with a major life activity (such as reading a

newspaper, or graduating from high school). A unanimous Supreme Court ruling (Toyota vs. Williams) in 2002

affirmed that to qualify as a disability a disorder must be pervasive, interfering with a broad

range of activities necessary to ordinary life. People with such mental disabilities don't attend

college. University students who claim to be "LD" may have learning disorders (whose definition

includes the requirement that they be isolated deficiencies, and not pervasive), but are unlikely

to be genuinely disabled. This apparently arcane distinction is important because there is

legal protection for the disabled but not for those only disordered. Even this protection would

not require that a university, which is about learning, modify its program or examinations

to accomodate those whose ability to learn is impaired to the point of disability. The mentally

retarded are certainly disabled, but no university has, yet, chosen or been required to

"accommodate" them. Universities, unlike local school districts, aren't in the special education business.

 

Extra time on examinations confers an extraordinary advantage on students who receive it.

The College Board (which administers the SAT and other national standardized

tests) takes this problem seriously, and indicates "nonstandard

administration" on reports of scores when the student has received extra

time, but most universities are not so careful.

 

This problem should concern all of us. University grades matter, for

they determine who gets into medical school. Someone who has difficulty

reading, computing or writing (the common forms of learning disability) will

not function well as a doctor, for he will not be able to keep up with the

medical literature, read package inserts on pharmceuticals (which often

contain essential warnings), prepare clear case reports for other doctors,

or calculate correct dosages. These mistakes kill patients. A university

which grants extra time to some students on its examinations, and does not

report this fact along with their grades, not only is displaying unethical

favoritism, but is endangering the public. When extra time is granted to students

who are not actually disabled (nearly all those receiving this privilege), the university

is also condoning cheating. Habitual cheaters don't make good doctors either.

 

A more detailed account of these issues, presented to the faculty at

Washington University in St. Louis (where a professor who resists giving some

students preferential treatment on examinations is threatened with dismissal), follows:

 

For many years at reputable American universities the faculty has

decided questions of educational policy---what we teach, how we teach it,

how we examine our students and how we grade them. Faculty autonomy in

educational matters was a hard-won right, but we thought that battle was won

long ago.

 

In recent years many of us have been surprised, as I was last Spring, to

find non-academic administrators telling us, in rather peremptory language,

that certain of our students must be given more time on examinations than

was allowed to the rest of our students. We were surprised in part because

this was an invasion of our traditional right of faculty autonomy, and in

part because of the nature of the demand itself. When I began teaching I was

told, and accepted because it is so obviously right, that we must treat all

our students equally and without favor, regardless of our personal feelings

towards them. As professors we, at times, must act as judges, and a fair

judge judges without favor or prejudice. A faculty member who violates this

rule has committed a breach of academic integrity.

 

As we all know, this controversy arose in the cases of students who are

certified as "learning disabled". We have abundant experience with an

analogous problem: students who cannot meet academic requirements because

they are ill, or have some personal emergency. In such cases the problem is

verified by a letter from a professional staff member of the Student Health

or Counseling Services, analogous to a letter from a psychologist certifying

learning disability. These letters from Student Health or Counseling

Services conclude with a request to give the student "every possible

consideration". We do so, and there is rarely any dispute. But it is the

professor who has the responsibility to decide what is a possible

consideration.

 

Common sense, justice, and the law require that the disabled receive

appropriate accommodations which permit them to overcome or circumvent their

disability so that they may receive the education we offer and participate

in it as fully as is possible. In most cases the nature of an appropriate

accommodation is obvious and not controversial: ramps enable the

wheelchair-bound to enter our classrooms, sign-language interpreters enable

the deaf to benefit from lectures and participate in discussions, etc.

 

Learning disorders are defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

IV, the psychologists' handbook: "Learning disorders are diagnosed when the

individual's achievement on...standardized tests in reading, mathematics or

written expression is substantially below that expected for age, schooling

and level of intelligence." If a student has difficulty reading (dyslexia)

an appropriate accommodation would circumvent the difficulty by making

reading unnecessary, just as we would for the blind: the examination could

be provided orally, recorded on audiotape. A student with difficulty

writing (dysgraphia) could be permitted to record the answers orally onto a

tape recorder (in a separate room). These accommodations are

natural and appropriate, for they address the actual disability, just as

does providing a note-taker (which we do routinely).

 

Extra time on exams is the only accommodation to disability which can

be abused. There is a great incentive for an ambitious student to pretend

to learning disability, for extra time will raise almost anyone's exam

scores. Because the diagnosis is based on the difference between achievement

and IQ scores, and because psychometric testing is an imprecise art, there

is opportunity for abuse. No one knows what fraction of the students

receiving extra time as learning disabled are not actually disabled, but

anecdotal evidence suggests it is substantial.

 

It is hard to find any rational relation between providing extra time

on exams and the disability which it supposedly accommodates. The

justification for providing extra time is that a dyslexic (dyslexia is

probably the most common learning disability; similar arguments apply to

other varieties) student needs more time than others to read the exam. But

exams generally don't require much reading; a typical exam might contain

100-200 words, requiring of a typical student a minute to read. A dyslexic

student requiring twice as long would only require an extra minute, rather

insignificant on an hour-long exam, and certainly not the extra half hour or

hour offered. It is also absurd to offer a student with mathematical

disability extra time on an English exam, etc., but present practice

pays no attention to the relevance of the disability to the actual situation.

 

If we really believed that learning disability merited extra time we

would face a logical trap: If a professor gave a reading assignment, due in

a week, dyslexic students would be entitled to 1 1/2 or two weeks. If the

professor then spoke about the reading assignment after a week he would be

discriminating against the dyslexic students, who (because of their

disability) could not prepare so soon and who therefore would not have the

opportunity to benefit from the class based on the reading assignment, just

as surely as a wheelchair-bound student excluded from the classroom by

stairs. If the professor waits two weeks to discuss the reading assignment

then he has in effect granted everyone in the class two weeks, and the

dyslexic students would be entitled to three or four weeks, and so on {\it

ad infinitum}. If we take extra time seriously as an accommodation then it

is not possible to base any lecture on assigned reading, and our courses

cease to function.

 

Why do we offer extra time? One answer is "It's the law."

 

In fact, extra time is not the law. The memorandum from the Counsel's

office repeatedly cites rulings and regulations which state that extra time

"may" be offered. In the American legal system lawyers make the best case

possible for their client, in this case the Administration (think of the

lawyers maintaining, with straight faces, that cigarette smoking is not

harmful to health and is not addictive). If this is the best their

lawyers can do, they don't have a case at all. It appears that whether

extra time is required has never been litigated. Most litigation regarding

learning disability in higher education concerns particular students'

eligibility (as in the recent New York State Bar Examination case, which

concerned which psychologist to believe, not the nature of the

accommodations offered) or other accommodations.

 

How did we get into this mess? I am not sure, but suspect it was the

result of trying to figure out how universities, which are about learning,

could accommodate the learning disabled. Extra time on tests satisfied the

students who received it because it was advantageous for them. The

administrators who invented this policy thought they were being generous.

But it was a very strange kind of generosity, because the gift was from the

students not receiving extra time who would now suffer unequal competition.

The administrators and faculty gave nothing of their own. This pre-emptive

surrender to an ill-defined threat of litigation carries another

price---that the demands will escalate. When it becomes known that one

yields under pressure, pressure will only increase. It is better to stick

to principles.

 

Almost every American student planning to apply to a competitive

college or university takes the SAT. Before a request for

accommodation hits a university, the College Board, which administers the

SAT, deals with it first. Their policy is simple (see

http://www.collegeboard.org). They give extra time, but when they give it

the resulting scores are marked "nonstandard administration". No such

annotation is made for other accommodations. They have never been sued over

this policy.

 

I propose exactly the same policy. It resolves all the fairness and

integrity issues, because a grade received with the aid of extra time would

no longer be misrepresented as a grade received under equal conditions. A

disabled student who does not wish to have this annotation may take the

examination in the usual time, while still receiving any other accommodation

to which he is entitled.

 

Extra time is cheating because it gives the recipient an advantage

over other students. No one respects those who think they are

entitled to cheat, and I have only contempt for those who tell them

they are entitled to cheat.

 

Jonathan Katz, Professor of Physics

[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu

Czech