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.