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New Study: Test-Taking Accommodations May Fall Short for Students with ADHD

A surprising new study finds that accommodations commonly used by students with ADHD when taking tests don’t always correlate with improved scores.




January 4, 2017

When students with ADHD secure IEPs, 504 plans, or informal school accommodations, their parents often consider it a victory — and hope that the accommodations will lead to an improved application of knowledge and skills, particularly on timed tests. But a recent study shows that commonly used testing accommodations, like extended time or regular breaks, don’t actually help students with ADHD perform better on standardized tests — a conclusion that may lead educators and parents to re-evaluate these strategies.

The study, published December 1, 2016, in Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, looked at 96 students with ADHD enrolled in third through eighth grade in schools across Maryland. More than half of the students had learning disabilities in reading or math, in addition to ADHD, according to parent reports. The students were evaluated using scores from the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) and individually administered cognitive tests; these scores were then linked to five potential testing accommodations: extended test time, frequent breaks, having the test read aloud, calculator use, and reduced distractions in the exam room.

These accommodations (and others) have been thought to level the playing field for students with ADHD, who often struggle to focus or properly manage their time during tests. But even when the researchers controlled for comorbid learning disabilities and the students’ grade levels, none of the five testing accommodations were associated with better scores on any of the tests when the study participants were compared to students with ADHD who did not receive the accommodations.

Alison Esposito Pritchard, a clinical psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and the lead author of the study, said she was surprised that none of the accommodations were associated with stronger test scores — particularly since she has often recommended them to patients at her practice in the past.

“Conceptually, it made sense that [the accommodations] might be helpful to kids with ADHD,” she said. “But once I started looking at the literature, I found a gap at looking at the effectiveness of those accommodations.”

She hypothesizes that the problem may be that some students don’t know how to make the most of their accommodations — and aren’t being properly guided by teachers and parents — and thus may still be rushing through their work or getting distracted. Follow-up research should focus more specifically on how students can more effectively utilize accommodations or how accommodations can be more specifically tailored for each student’s unique challenges, Pritchard said.

“Education is an area where they are really trying to talk about best practices and use evidence-based based teaching strategies,” she said. “We can’t say that extended time [for instance] is ineffective, but we can [say] that it’s not working the way we’re doing it right now.”

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