Student Accommodations and Academic Integrity

Student accommodations can be a very difficult area for professors and administrators, who struggle with balancing a genuine concern for individual student needs with the importance of maintaining the integrity of a particular examination.

I mean, let me be clear – accommodations can be tricky for everyone, whether we are talking about an employee or a student. There is a very human instinct to give the requesting person exactly what they want and that instinct can be very dangerous, particularly because it is not easily maintained. In this area, consistency is key. That means being consistent with that person and also being consistent in the types of accommodations that are offered to similarly-situated people. Let me give you an example so you see what I mean:

Professor Smith has a student – Amy Adams – in her class who has been approved for double time on her exams, which means she is allowed to use 4 hours instead of the normal 2 hours. Professor Smith decides not to time Amy’s test, and Amy actually ends up using 6 hours to take the exam. Brad Smith is in the same class, but takes the makeup exam on a different day than Amy.  Brad has also been approved for double time on his exams, which means he is allowed to use 4 hours instead of the normal 2 hours. During the exam, Brad asks Professor Smith if he can have an additional hour (for a total of 5 hours) to take the exam. Professor Smith has a meeting scheduled and cannot sit for 5 hours, so she refuses.

Here, there was nothing necessarily nefarious about Professor Smith’s refusal to give Brad an additional hour – it appears to have been related to the professor’s schedule and not to some illegal animus towards Brad. However, for all intents and purposes, Amy and Brad were the same (i.e., they were in the same class, with the same teacher, and with the same approved accommodations) and should have been treated the same. By doing something that she thought was helpful for Amy, Professor Smith created a precedent for accommodations in her class. Let’s add to the scenario that Professor Smith and Amy are both Caucasian and that Brad is Black – would that add an additional complication to the disparate treatment?

Now, let’s add academic integrity to the mix. This time, we are not just talking about the amount of time a student is given to complete an examination, but also the conditions under which the student is taking the test. How early in the day can the student be required to take the test? What if the student needs to take the test at a different time or on a different day from the other students – must the student take the exact same test? Can the student be given a different test?

Unfortunately, like all things in the world of labor and employment law, there is no bright line rule here. The only blanket rule I will give is this: all tests should be timed. Unless a student’s doctor has approved (and the institution has a practice of giving) truly unlimited time for a test, you are not doing anyone a favor (as we saw in the example above with Amy and Brad) by giving unlimited time to a student on a test, unless you plan on doing that with all other students going forward. The important thing is that the accommodated student should not be penalized for needing an accommodation. If the student needs to take the test at a different time or on a different day from the rest of the class and the professor elects to create a different exam (to reduce the likelihood of cheating), then the accommodated student’s test should not be more difficult than the other tests, for example. Aside from that, as with everything else, consistency and reasonableness are key.

This is a tricky one – have you had to deal with this issue? How are you handling it?