Only Temporary Band-aids: Affirmative Action and Extended Time Testing

What do affirmative action and extended time testing have to do with one another? They’re both band-aids. Unfortunately, in popular discourse, there is rarely talk of any sort of weaning process with either.

Now, affirmative action is a complex issue, and if you want to explore almost every nuance of the debate, I’d advise you read Frank Wu’s Yellow. However, there is one essential assumption in the debate that is often not tested: if affirmative action is a good idea now, when will it go away? How will it go away? What steps are we taking to make this not a stop-gap measure but a first step toward the ever-so-lofty meritocracy opponents of affirmative action policies so laud and imagine exists right now? I rarely hear anyone talk about how affirmative action could eventually be phased out, and ideally—even if one believes strongly in affirmative action, as I do—everyone should want it to go away eventually… if it is successful.

One of the basic premises of anti-affirmative action rhetoric is the idea that everyone should be treated the same… not equally, but the same, regardless of race. Now, of course, proponents of this rhetoric rarely want the same treatment for races before college admissions or job searches. God forbid every public school (whether suburb or inner city) should have the same facilities, class sizes, and monetary resources. The other problem with treating the races “the same” in admissions decisions is the fact that they are not the same. There is a problem. To take the band-aid analogy to its logical extension, I’d say if I have a gash on my arm—on only my arm… not my leg, not my face, not my back, not my toe… would it make sense to treat every part of my body “the same” at that point? If I put neosporin, gauze pads, and a band-aid on my arm’s gash, would it make sense that I put all those on my legs, face, back, and toes as well? Is it all or nothing?

The flip side, of course, is that at some point, the band-aid must come off. I will eventually want my arm to be without the band-aid, for,while the band-aid is helpful in the healing process, it is also ugly, unnatural, and outliving of its purpose once the gash beneath it is healed.

What’s more disturbing to me than affirmative action’s indefinite semi-permanence is the indefinite permanence of extended time testing. Now, one fundamental problem with extended time testing and “learning disabilities” or “learning differences” is there is currently, in the U.S., no standard licensing and official criteria for determining whether someone qualifies for being LD (and thence to have “extra time”). This means if someone takes his child to a “learning specialist” who decides the child is not LD, the parent can then go to another “learning specialist” who will decide the opposite.

This first problem is simply a matter of bureaucracy and inconsistency. While it allows individuals to exploit the extended time system, it is not what is fundamentally wrong with extended time. What’s wrong—and I’m speaking strictly from an experiential/observational perspective, not a theoretical/abstract one—with extended time testing is that it never seems to end. The student, diagnosed usually in middle or high school, receives “extended time” because she has “processing issues” or memory retrieval problems. Then, the student gets similar support in college, and I would imagine graduate school as well. It won’t be long before someone files a lawsuit against an employer for not giving her enough time to complete a project.

All the while, educators, learning specialists, and parents reassure the child with a “learning difference” that she is still intelligent, that she just has trouble processing or retrieving information. Unfortunately, being successful in school and in life is about much more than mere intelligence. A lot of academic success comes from the ability to retrieve and process information, to meet deadlines, and to work under pressure. LD students who are used to advocating for themselves nonchalantly tell their teachers, “I have time and a half for this test.” Of course, there are always situations in which students who qualify for time and a half are done in only a couple of minutes past the time. And, then, what do teachers tell students who don’t qualify for extended time when these non-LD students are unable to complete tests in the allotted time?

There are two core issues here. 1. Extended time should be a band-aid at best, so that students who have processing and retrieval issues can slowly find strategies to compensate for those issues and ways to slowly close the gap between themselves and their non-LD peers. 2. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators need to recognize that academic success is about more than just intelligence. Students should, in fact, be rewarded for completing tasks on time. Why else would extended time testers feel an incentive to develop coping mechanisms?

Remember, band-aids are ugly and should be only temporary. They can be necessary for healing, and they should not be applied to every part of the body, but if they stay on too long, they leave sticky rings and wrinkles on the skin.

1 comment

  1. I must say that I disagree with much of your reasoning. While America is of course not a meritocratic utopia, and there are more than enough people who get screwed by the system, it makes no sense to try to correct those problems along racial lines- to do so makes assumptions that everyone of a particular race is in a similar situation, which is simply not true. The issues you pointed out as support for affirmative action in college admissions (such as access to quality pre-college education) are not a function of race but of material wealth. I personally (a white male) know several people who come from wealthier families and more privileged backgrounds than myself, yet were given an edge over me in college admissions and scholarship opportunities because of belonging to some minority group or other. If there is to be any type of affirmative action, it makes more sense to make it along lines of socioeconomic class rather than race. Friends of mine who benefited from affirmative action policies acknowledge that the advantages they were given were unfair and complete bull, but when someone is offered a full ride scholarship for being half Chinese, they take it rather than quibble over fairness towards others. I would undoubtedly have done the same in their situation.

    And for the second part of your post, I find it somewhat in contradiction to the first. People with real difficulties should not be helped, but others should be given an extra advantage because of their race? I myself am autistic, and I can tell you that I am not faking it. In the case of autism, there are genuine neuroanatomical differences that cause a different pattern of functioning. While my own difficulties do not require extra time on tests (if anything, I am usually the first to finish an exam) there are situations where I honestly do need help. For example, I need to be in a quiet testing room because of my sensory problems- otherwise I can not focus on what I’m doing. I also am incapable of taking notes in class for a variety of reasons- my handwriting is both painstakingly slow and (more often than not) illegible even to myself, and besides (as is common among autistics) I am unable to “multitask” and divide my attention in such a manner. Acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean I can no longer legitimately claim to be intelligent. Without any accommodations, I earned perfect scores on the SAT, gained acceptance to Oxford University (yes, THAT Oxford) and graduated as valedictorian in a class of over 800 students. Tests, from what I’ve been told, are supposed to measure what you know, not something like how fast you can do something or whether you can focus while blocking out a myriad of external distractions. The fact that these tests are made more difficult for some people by peripheral issues that don’t matter as much for others should be adjusted for. Your claims that people who request academic accommodations need to have an “incentive to develop coping mechanisms” are useless to someone (like me) who has a malfunctioning thalamus that fails to process sensory input properly. I can not simply will my brain to rebuild its anatomy because it would be convenient to do so, any more than blacks could simply “choose” to be white to avoid discrimination.

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