Needing Extra Time to Take Tests: A Firsthand Look at Dyslexia

October 2, 2013 
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Allison at her graduation from Columbia University, where she earned her master's degree. Allison at her graduation from Columbia University, where she earned her master’s degree. Photo and caption courtesy of the Yale Center of Dyslexia and Creativity.

Needing extra time to take tests is not something to be afraid of. Take it from Allison Schwartz, a woman who refuses to let her dyslexia get in the way of her success.

In “How Extended Time on Tests Improved More than Test Scores” the young writer brilliantly accounts what it is like to grow up with dyslexia, and the struggle she had with standing out as “different” among her peers.

In fourth grade, Schwartz had a teacher that recognized her learning difference. “She observed discrepancies in how I spoke in class with how I scored on tests,” Schwartz writes. Without this teacher’s encouragement to seek extra time on tests, Schwartz predicts she would have lost the confidence and motivation to do well in school. “I would spiral downward in a fit of never-ending self-doubt,” she says. “I would have given up on studying and neglected my schoolwork.”

By high school, Schwartz admits she started to get embarrassed that she needed extra time on tests:

Although my comments were always well respected in class, I didn’t want to be labeled as one of “those people.” “Those people” were the individuals who went into special rooms to take tests because there was something very wrong with them—so wrong that they couldn’t take tests in the same room as others.

In the article published by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, Schwartz explains that the extra time was needed to help her process the information. Without the extra time, she wouldn’t be able to translate all of her knowledge on the page in front of her. She needed extra time to reread directions and numbers, ensuring she understood the question.

She also needed to reread her answers:

Making sure you wrote what you thought you wrote is huge for dyslexics. When dyslexics write they sometimes insert words that do not make any sense, but sound like a word that they want to use, or construe sentences whose grammatical structure is more similar to a Persian sentence. For those of you who do not read Persian or “dyslexic,” Persian is written in the opposite direction of English and the verb comes at the end of the sentence. Persian grammar is flexible, as is dyslexic grammar—English grammar, not so much. This is why dyslexics must always make sure they properly translate their ideas into English. With certain time constraints, this task is almost impossible for dyslexics.

Extra time doesn’t solve all test-taking struggles, Schwartz says. “Trust me, extra time does not make you into a superhero where you can overcome any calculus or philosophical problem in a single leap. You either know the materials from learning them or you don’t.”

Now, with her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from top-tier universities, Schwartz looks back at her learning career with two regrets. She wishes she had asked for extra time earlier, avoiding a hit to her GPA. She also regrets believing that her learning difference “meant that my learning and test-taking abilities were inferior. “Different” does not mean inferior,” she writes.

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