Extended Time and other Accommodations on the SAT and ACT
Every year the College Board and ACT Inc. receive tens of thousands of requests from parents seeking extended time for their children’s standardized tests. These organizations have a tremendous amount of power and responsibility. They must answer the difficult questions: who truly deserves extended time? How does one create fair and consistent standards to evaluate these myriad requests?
For decades the College Board granted an ever-increasing number of students the opportunity to take the SAT with extended time and other special accommodations. The percentage of students taking the SAT with accommodation rose from roughly 0.6% in 1988 to roughly 2.3% in 2004. Paula Kuebler, Executive Director of the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), said that in 2004 over 55,000 students received special accommodations on the College Board’s standardized tests.
In 2005 the College Board received the greatest number of applications for SAT accommodations in its history. In the same year, the College Board did an abrupt “about face”. It not only did not increase the number of accommodations granted but also reversed a 20+ year trend by offering significantly fewer allowances for accommodation than it had in previous years, turning down tens of thousands of requests.
Why did the College Board change its tune? Why is the College Board fighting back the tide of requests for accommodation? Who will be hurt? And how can deserving students get accommodation in this new environment?
To answer these questions, we must first address the following:
Why is the number of requests increasing so rapidly?
1) More diagnoses = More accommodation
At the most basic level, more people today are being diagnosed with learning disabilities than in any previous era; consequently, more people are requesting SAT/ACT accommodation for these disabilities. In the last 20 years, our methods of assessment, diagnosis and treatment of disabilities have become much more robust, and our very conceptualization of learning disabilities has evolved. Much of the stigma is gone, and more and more people are seeking assessment and treatment for their learning/processing/attentional difficulties. For example, in 2003 the CDC reported that 4.4 million children currently have an ADHD diagnosis and 2.5 million are being medicated for ADHD. It is not surprising that many of these 4.4 million students are requesting extended time on account of their attentional deficits.
2) Accommodation does, in fact, raise scores
It should come as no surprise that having extended time on the SAT or ACT can have a significant impact on testing performance. For those suffering from a disability, accommodation will yield the greatest gains, but even students without disabilities benefit from having more time. The College Board conducted a study using its “experimental sections” to gauge whether or not allotting more time per question would impact student performance. The College Board found that students’ scores did increase with extra time, particularly in math and among higher scoring students.
3) The flag is gone
For decades the College Board placed an asterisk * next to the scores of all students who took the SAT under nonstandard testing conditions. Disability rights activists considered this a form of discrimination and filed multiple suits to revoke the nonstandard designation (*). In 2004, beset by lawsuits, the College Board and ACT Inc., agreed to remove the nonstandard designation, meaning students’ test-scores would no longer be “flagged” as an indication that the students had received extra time or any other special accommodations on their tests. With the flag gone, the number of applications for special accommodations increased dramatically.
If the number of applications for accommodations is increasing, why is the College Board rejecting the majority of applications and decreasing the actual number of accommodations granted?
1) The flag is gone
Some opportunists saw the removal of the asterisk as an opportunity to gain the advantage of extra time without the potential stigma of their tests being “flagged.” Many more students applied and were granted accommodations in 2004 than in previous years. The scores of non-standard test-takers began to rise: in 2004 verbal scores among students with accommodation jumped 8 points and math scores among the same population jumped 7 points. This alarmed the College Board and indicated that the pool of students applying for accommodation was apparently changing.
2) The curve is wrong
Hypothetically, if you distributed the scores of all students sitting for the SAT on a curve, with or without accommodation, it should approximate the normal curve (a.k.a. the “bell-curve”). When the College Board plotted the 2005 results of students taking the test with accommodations, the results yielded not a bell-curve but rather a bi-modal distribution (meaning the distribution was top and bottom heavy with a disproportionate number of low scoring and high scoring students rather than a tendency toward the mean). This greatly alarmed the College Board that the population of students receiving accommodation did not mirror the rest of the population.
3) The 2000 California Audit
In 2000, concerned that racial and demographic privilege was playing a role in the assignment of accommodation and extended time, the California state legislature requested an audit of SAT practices in the state. Elaine Howle, CA state auditor, concluded that the students receiving accommodation “were disproportionately white, or were more likely to come from an affluent family or to attend a private school.” An analysis of the numbers from the report yielded the following figures: white students were over-represented by 45%, students coming from families whose incomes exceed $100,000 were over-represented by 139%, and students from private schools were over-represented by 100%. The report also concluded that 18.2% of the requests granted were of “questionable” merit and gave students an “unwarranted” and “unfair” advantage. The report cited weaknesses in the College Board’s approval process as the cause of some of the unfair distribution.
So what does all this mean?
In this new world of testing, more and more people are applying for accommodation, and the College Board is granting fewer and fewer of these requests. This creates a difficult situation for many students and families. Over the last five years I have personally worked with students who have desperately needed extra time but whose requests were denied by the College Board. I have also worked with students who ultimately received accommodation and increased 350+ points, dramatically impacting their academic futures. I know first-hand the impact extended timing can make.
Some of you have children or are working with students who have a legitimate need for accommodation. So what can you do to help them receive accommodations on their college admissions tests?
If I want to apply for accommodation, how does the system work?
First off, be forewarned: the process of applying for and receiving accommodation is difficult and success is far from guaranteed. According to one Atlanta psychologist, there is no true rhyme or reason why some students receive accommodation and why some students are turned down. However, understanding the following can help you navigate the application process:
How much do high school accommodations matter?
To be eligible for accommodation on the national standardized tests, the College Board requires that you are receiving accommodations for testing in your own high school.
Until a few years ago, the College Board had a simple policy: if your high school granted you accommodation, the College Board would generally defer to your high school’s judgment and follow suit. The College Board sought to minimize the investment of its own resources and would leave the burden of allocating accommodations to the high-schools. But with the dramatic increase in accommodation requests, the College Board decided that it had to take on a greater level of involvement and oversight. The College Board now independently evaluates each request according to its own chosen criteria.
Which criteria do the College Board use to determine who has a disability?
For years, the College Board primarily used the criteria for disability outlined in our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA conceptualized disability using the “discrepancy model” in which a student’s disability is gauged by comparing his or her potential to her or her performance. If a student’s achievement test scores greatly lag behind his or her IQ score, this indicates a performance discrepancy and a potential disability.
Recently the College Board and ACT Inc. have been moving away from the IDEA disability diagnosis model towards the model outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA model does not compare the student’s actual performance to his or her potential performance. Rather, it compares the student’s performance to that of the average person; not to his or her peers or self, but to the norm. If a student is performing 1-2 standard deviations above the norm already but could score higher, he or she will have a difficult time getting accommodation using the ADA standards.
Under the ADA model, to get accommodation a student must demonstrate how his/her daily academic functioning is impaired. This is the new gold standard: evidence of functional impairment. According to the ADA, what may be a relative weakness may not indicate a true disability. Under this new ADA model, requests for accommodation for attention deficit disorders and many other types of disabilities are being denied left and right.
What kind of evidence does the College Board require to grant accommodation?
1) Formal evidence of a disability provided by an official evaluation
To receive accommodation a student must present evidence of a disability as defined by the ADA or IDEA. In the public school system the evidence comes from a formal psychological evaluation leading to the creation of either an Individual Education Plan or a 504 plan to address the disability. For public school students the College Board will want to see evidence of an active IEP (defined in section B of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act) or 504 plan (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 under ADA). Both the IEP and the 504 plan outline the disability, accommodation, goals for the student and more. Most public school students are evaluated in-house, but parents can pay for an external evaluation from a psychologist. Generally the College Board is more sympathetic to students who receive an in-house evaluation than to those who go outside their public school system.
Private school students generally take a different path since most private schools don’t have in-house school psychologists to perform the testing necessary to secure accommodation. It is possible for a private school student to self-refer to the counselors/psychologist in his/her local public school system for a psychological evaluation, but most families I have worked with have opted for an external evaluation from a licensed psychologist to gain evidence of a disability. A full neuropsychological report can run anywhere from $1500-$2500.
2) Evidence that you have received accommodation for testing in your high school for at least 4 months prior to taking the SAT and 12 months prior to taking the ACT
The College Board wants to see a long history of your disability. Ideally a parent can show a trail of accommodations from elementary school onward since this will help the student’s cause; however, sometimes this is not a possibility. Sometimes a particular disability does not become apparent until late in a student’s academic career. Compensatory techniques can carry a student so far, but eventually, as the academic demands increase, it is harder and harder for a student with a disability to get by. Even if a student has a late onset disability, it is still possible to get accommodation. The heuristic is that you need to show evidence of school accommodation for a minimum of 4 months for the SAT and 12 months for the ACT, or you will be hard pressed to receive test accommodation.
3) Letters and data from teachers describing the student’s disability and performance
You will need the support of your teachers and their documentation to secure accommodation from the College Board.
How does the filing and appeal process work?
First, you must get all the appropriate paperwork together. The College Board will want to see evidence of the IEP, 504 plan or psych evaluation.
When your papers are gathered you must submit your application to the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Coordinator at the College Board. The SSD has offices operating out of Princeton, NJ and NYC. Know that it will take 7 weeks to get your initial answer. If you do not send your documentation to the College Board 7 weeks before the test, you are out of luck.
The Rule of Thumb in requesting accommodation is simple: For the first go around, almost everyone gets turned down. Expect to be denied your initial request for accommodation.
Next, you must make your first appeal. Again, you may be denied. You may have to issue a 2nd or 3rd appeal. Some of the parents with whom I have worked have hired disability attorneys to push things through. There are lawsuits all over the place with parents trying to secure the accommodations that could help their children.
Ultimately, it becomes a negotiation. If you persist, the officers at the College Board will generally concede to get you off of their case. The word on the street is that three appeals is the average needed to secure accommodation. So if you feel strongly, don’t give up.
Also, be mindful of what type of accommodations you are seeking. The College Board is comfortable granting time-and-a-half but only rarely grants double time. If you want double time or the ability to type your essay on a computer, it will be incredibly hard to get. The College Board will demand a full psychological evaluation or a neuropsychological evaluation, and it will not be an easy process.
By now you realize that this is not an easy thing to get, but getting accommodation can make a world of difference to some students. Here is the final list of things to do if you are seeking accommodation:
The Short List:
- Do not waste time; get on this ASAP!
- Read the College Board web-site and know all the time frames.
- You have got to have the data from your teachers. If none exists then there is no chance of getting accommodation. So, gather all the data and scores you can.
- Professional reports can take 3-6 weeks. Talk to the examiner- can the person meet the deadlines? Be mindful of his/her time too.
- Start with the PSAT. The earlier the better.
- Get evaluated: you have to have documentation for any accommodation.
- It is extraordinarily helpful to have a paper trail, so start whenever you can.
I hope this was generally informative and particularly helpful to those in the middle of this process or to those who are pondering entering this process. Again, extra time and other accommodations are critical to the success of some students on college admissions tests. With the right resources and support, it is still possible to secure these accommodations and help young people find their way to academic success and collegiate admissions.
- College Board: Services for Students with Disabilities
- National Council on Learning Disabilities: Interview with SSD Director Paula Keubler
- Admissions Advice web-forum
- College Confidential- forum on accommodation
- “Unflagged” by Samuel J. Abrams
- 2000 California State Audit Abstract
- 2000 California State Audit full report
- California SAT Audit 2000- The Irascible Professor
- 504 Plan
- IDEA: Individuals with Disability Education Act