Letter to the Editor from Michael Callahan
“Fair is not equal. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.”
In responding to Charlie Hirsch’s op-ed published in the September issue of the Knightly News, this quote comes to mind. The resonating theme of his article focused on the idea of fairness when it comes to academic accommodations such as extended time for assessments.
As a learning specialist and advocate for students with disabilities for twenty years, I urge you to look at this issue through a different lens. Rather than thinking of yourself and looking at extended time as an unfair advantage, try to imagine what your life would be like if you were challenged by a disability. Now imagine if your peers questioned the fairness of your accommodation. How would that feel?
It is safe to say that most of us would never question someone’s need for a service dog to navigate his or her community or another using a wheelchair or an elevator to move to and through our campus. However, when it comes to learning differences we question the fairness of accommodations. The academic struggles that some of your peers face are real, documented, and proven by science. The fact that they are able to hide their challenges and why some may question the fairness of accommodations is a testament to their intelligence and their ability to compensate.
The use of accommodations does not ensure better grades as the original op-ed suggests. Rather they attempt to make traditional academics, like the ones taught at Pace and many other similar schools, accessible to every student. Achievement at rigorous college prep institutions is no longer only for traditional students. With the aid of academic accommodations and resources, a more diverse population of learners are able to access and enjoy academic success as well as positively contribute to our community.
As this is my life’s work, I feel passionately about the subject and could speak on several different aspects of my job as a learning specialist. However, my focus will be to shed light on many of the mistruths of the aforementioned article from September ’18 as well as providing information regarding accommodations. In order for a student to receive accommodations they must participate in a comprehensive psychological educational evaluation. These evaluations last approximately six hours over the span of two days.
The licensed psychologist who performs this task also retrieves information from the student, their parents, and their teachers. The evaluation itself contains numerous tests that include both cognitive and achievement testing and they have been thoroughly tested to be valid instruments. Thus, the thought of a student being able to “beat” or “cheat” the test in order to demonstrate a disorder is unfounded. The tests are reliable and the psychologist would be able to tell if a participant is attempting to “fix” the results.
It is also unfounded that by merely participating in a comprehensive evaluation, one will receive accommodations. The objective of the evaluation is to determine students’ strengths and challenges and to rule out any learning difficulties. In order to receive academic accommodations at Pace as well as at most institutions the testing must reveal the following: a diagnosis, history of challenge, functional limitations, rationale for specific accommodations, and recommendations of accommodations.
There are many students who have participated in the process of an evaluation where there was an absence of one of the aforementioned requirements and who were not granted accommodations. Finally, these diagnoses cannot be “bought” as suggested in the original op-ed. Licensed psychologists have gone to school for too long and have too much at stake to falsely diagnose a disorder, including but not limited to losing their license.
The article also mentioned the unfairness of seeing the test and coming back later to complete it. Although beginning the test in one period and coming back later does happen, it is rare. Many of our neighboring schools are quite jealous of our academic schedule that allows students to begin and complete their tests in one sitting. As we all know, we have two testing periods a day, the second and last period. The twenty-minute break exists after the second period of the day in order to facilitate extended time and a student with a test during the last period simply uses time after school to access their extended time.
What students may not be aware of is that many teachers do not allow students to see the entire test, if on that rare occasion they need to split the test. Rather, they will give those students a few pages during the first sitting and the remaining pages once they return. Again, I would look at this through a different lens. How “fair” is it that some students have to come back and take a test after a school day when their peers can be done for the day? Who really wants to spend more time on a test than they have to?
Learning Disorders and ADHD are perhaps the most common challenges, however they are only a few of the diagnoses that affect learning for millions of people. These are complex issues that are difficult to understand since the underlying challenges are mostly invisible to the naked eye. I challenge you to approach accommodations in the realm of education with the same openness, support and empathy that you would show to someone with a physical disability.
If you would like to learn more about these academic challenges and accommodations, please know that the doors of the ARC are always open. Following you will find additional resources if you would rather research on your own: ldaamerica.org, additudemag.com and dyslexiaida.org
Editors’ Note: Mr. Callahan is the Director of the Academic Resource Center at Pace Academy.