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Last week The Herald reported on a Princeton freshman who filed suit against the university in an attempt to receive extended time on her exams. We believe Princeton and other schools deserve a tremendous amount of deference in choosing their own testing procedures. The alternative, having judges lift exam requirements on an ad hoc basis, would compromise academic freedom at institutions of higher learning.

In the case at hand, Princeton has made efforts to accommodate the plaintiff's needs by placing her in a less distracting environment during exams, limiting her exams to one per day and giving her short breaks every hour. Whether she also deserves extra time is necessarily a subjective question, and one that judges are ill-equipped to decide. On our reading of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Princeton should win the case. According to the section of the ADA that deals with education, "Academic requirements that the recipient (university) can demonstrate are essential to the instruction being pursued by such student … will not be regarded as discriminatory."

The ability to climb a flight of stairs is not essential to the instructional value of any course, nor is the ability to read small type. Accordingly, universities should provide wheelchair-accessible facilities and large-print exams for students who need them. More generally, judges should continue to aggressively enforce anti-discrimination laws in an academic context when the obstacles in question have nothing to do with the instructional value of a course. These accommodations make it possible for every student to take the exam, but they do not make the exam any easier.

Extra time is more controversial, because time limits are an essential component of many exams. While some students who are learning-disabled read more slowly than others who are not, an extra hour may nonetheless provide an overwhelming advantage. Some professors design their exams so well-prepared students have exactly enough time to complete them and not a minute more. And in quantitative classes, time limits force students to learn the most efficient problem-solving techniques. Universities and professors know better than judges whether timed exams are essential to instruction in a particular course.

If the judge in the Princeton lawsuit rules that the plaintiff deserves extra time, he will have to evaluate her learning disabilities in the context of her course lineup. He will also have to determine the appropriateness of extra time for every timed exam on her schedule. In addition, he will make intrusive academic judgments about the instructional value of deadlines in each course. We believe Princeton is in a much better position to make these assessments.

Whatever the lawsuit's outcome, Princeton and other colleges should make every effort to ensure that admitted students learn about the accommodations available for those with learning disabilities before the matriculation deadline. Doing so will avoid costly litigation and give students a better idea of which school is right for them.


Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at) browndailyherald.com.




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