Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Resource Center for People with Disabilities

Time to get back to my roots and do another post about education, albeit a less sweeping one than my normal philosophical ramblings. The motivation for today's discussion is something I have to deal with as an instructor, namely, mandates from the Resource Center for People with Disabilities, or RCPD. The most common way that RCPD affects the classroom is by mandating that students receive augmented time on quizzes and exams, usually 25% or 50%.

As I was proctoring my last chapter exam for the semester, I was musing on this policy, about which I have mixed feelings. Of course, as someone who feels that education is of great value, I think it laudable that we make efforts to enable as many people as possible to partake in it. However, I think there are issues of classroom procedure, fairness, and philosophy, in order of increasing importance in my opinion.

Most trivially, it feels slightly disruptive to allow some students more time than others, even as a leveling tactic to take into account external factors. I feel my ability to insist students hand in their work if I am obviously not applying that standard to all my students. Of course, it doesn't help that I am, in general, as assertive as a wet paper bag, and that I think in an ideal world students would have all the time they desired to show their mathematical ability. However, as someone who proctors his own exams and quizzes, I do understand the practical reasons for time constraints, as I often have other things that I need to do.

In regard to fairness, there is a slightly trickier issue. First, let us consider what a grade in, just for example, a math class means. We ought not take it as an indication of a person's fitness as a human being, or even as a measure of their overall intelligence. As I understand it, ideally, the grade in a math class is meant to denote a student's level of mastery in a subject. Note that I do not say, "mastery in a subject relative to their own abilities."

Believe me, at times it breaks my heart that I do not give grades based on effort! But I believe that maintaining the integrity of our evaluation system requires that students receive grades that reflect their mathematical mastery, not necessarily the work they put into the class. While the two our quite related, in cases where a student enters a class without a mastery of the prerequisites, for example calculus students intimidated by fractions or baffled by trigonometric functions, one's effort can only do so much to remedy their foundational disadvantage. However, in the case of someone with an RCPD Individualized Education Program (IEP, I don't think this is the term used, but it is the one I remember), if I give them the same grade as someone without, I am saying that the two have an equivalent mastery of mathematics, if one is given such amount of extra time. Note, that my biggest concern is that the accommodation is not, in fact, geared toward helping their education, just their grade. While students can turn exams and quizzes into learning opportunities, it has been my impression that, for the most part, they do not do so, perhaps through lack of practice at this skill. Thus an accommodation that only affects quiz and exam times is more of an Individualized Evaluation Program than an Individualized Education Program.

Of course, for some people the problem may not be that they need twice as long to do the math as their classmates, but that they need twice as long to do it in a test setting. And here we run into the philosophical problem. If a student's problem is with the evaluation method in question, rather than actual comprehension, and Individualized Evaluation Program is an appropriate recourse. However, if someone has test anxiety, does giving them extra time to spend on the dreaded test really level the playing field. We are so enamored with the concept of standardization and uniform testing that we often try to shoehorn students to fit the model we have created for them. It isn't as though a written examination is the only method I have to gauge the level of mathematical mastery my students possess, although it is a very efficient one for handling students en masse. Hopefully, by now you get the impression that I suspect our test-driven evaluation is another symptom of the industrialization of education.

At the end of class, I am left with the suspicion that I have been fair to no one. Students without yet diagnosed individual needs are being measured against those who have obtained an advantage, and students with special needs are being evaluated in a manner which may still not adequately capture their true mathematical proficiency. This is why I prefer tutoring, it is so much better to get to work with people one-on-one and just chat about mathematics.

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