Examiners buckle under an avalanche of excuses

October 16, 1998

Frank Furedi believes the massive increase in disability claims among students may be a case of swinging the lead

The university examination system in the United States is fast turning into an exercise in therapy and special pleading. University authorities say a growing number of new students are claiming exemptions on the grounds of special needs or learning disability. Students and their parents are also increasingly turning to the courts and suing universities that are not prepared to accept their demands for special treatment.

In 1991, 8.8 per cent of US first-year college students reported some form of disability, compared with 2.6 per cent in 1978. Since the early 1990s, the number of students claiming to be disabled has continued to rise, as have claims for dispensation from taking prerequisite courses.

University entrance exams, or SATs, are often untimed or adjusted to meet a student's special needs. In the 1991-92 academic year, 18,000 learning disabled examinees received special treatment for the SAT. By 1996-97 that number had more than doubled to 40,000.

Students with learning disabilities can claim more than special dispensation from regular exam conditions. Eligibility standards are sometimes relaxed and courseloads reduced, while students claiming disability status have received the services of professional note-takers and special accommodation on campus. Professional certification and licence exams - gatekeepers to the professions - have also been affected. In 1995, the US National Board of Medical Examiners administered 450 untimed Medical College Admissions Tests - a fivefold increase from 1990.

A similar pattern emerges in legal profession entrance exams.

The American learning disability lobby is committed to expanding the numbers of young people afflicted.

Advocacy groups frequently claim that 15 to 20 per cent of the US population have a learning disability. Recently discovered learning disabilities include maths disability, spelling disability and foreign-language disability. Symptoms linked to maths-learning disability are an inability to keep track of time, chronic lateness, difficulties with financial planning and budgeting, poor sense of direction and difficulty in remembering dance sequences. Nearly everyone has experienced these symptoms at one time or another.

The growing market for special treatment not only trivialises the experience of those suffering from a serious impairment, it is also symptomatic of a tendency to institutionalise excuses. Individuals with grave physical disabilities represent only a small minority of the students who claim special privilege under US federal disability laws. The flourishing of special needs education, combined with the expansion of the disabled category, contributes to a culture in which students are encouraged to view their performance as the outcome of their "condition".

Similar tendencies are also appearing in Britain. A recent survey showed that between 1985 and 1996, the number of British people who considered themselves disabled had increased by 40 per cent. The greatest increase was among the young. Self-definition of disability increased by 155 per cent for those between 16 and 19 during this period.

The authors of the survey conclude that the difference between the 1985 and 1996 figures "appear too large to be explained by a real increase in the prevalence of disability", but are at a loss to explain why more people are embracing this label.

One visit to a meeting of a university examiners board would provide the explanation.

Colleagues in British universities can readily confirm the significant amount of time that boards of examiners spend evaluating not so much the performance of examinees but the quality of their medical evidence.

One colleague, who lectures in law at a London university, found 29 per cent of students had submitted evidence to her board of examiners. Another colleague in a reputable department of sociology was told by her university's learning support tutor not to fail a student who wrote an incomprehensible examination paper.

As long as the student made a point, everything else could be disregarded. It was the opinion of the tutor and not of the examiner that prevailed.

The tendency to inflate the meaning of disability and to expand the grounds for special treatment calls into question the viability of an examination system based on a common standard. Sadly, the provision of ready-made excuses also limits the expectations that students have of their own potential. Worse still, all these developments are taking place behind the scenes. Their consequence for university education demands attention.

Frank Furedi is reader in sociology at Darwin College, the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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