Affluence and Accommodations: Wealthier Students are Securing More School-based Accommodations for Disabilities
A recent article in the New York Times, “Need Extra Time on Tests? It Helps to Have Cash,” highlights the disparities that exist in the rate of students receiving a 504 designation (a formal plan to accommodate disabilities) across 11,000 public US high schools, and, thus, the rate these students receive accommodations on standardized tests. The authors, Dana Goldstein and Jugal K. Patel, reported that students coming from more affluent schools (with a higher median household income) had significantly higher rates of 504 designations than their less affluent peers.
Examining data from the US Census and the Department of Education, Goldstein and Patel found that schools in the top 1% of medium household income had an average rate of 504 designations of 5.8% compared to the national average of 2.7%. Schools in the bottom 1% of household income had a rate of 504 designations of only 1.5%. Wealthier kids are receiving more diagnoses of disabilities and are receiving more accommodations in school and on standardized tests. Note that the National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that roughly 20% of students in the country have some form of learning/attentional issues, though many go undiagnosed and untreated.
Wealthier families have greater resources to enhance their children’s educational experiences. Parents will go to great lengths to ensure their children have educational advantages, from moving to the best school districts, to providing more enrichment activities, to securing professional help if their students need support. Psychoeducational testing is not cheap, and many school districts are not adequately resourced to provide timely educational evaluations to all students who seek them. Having greater financial resources allows affluent families to secure private testing, leading to the higher rate of 504 designations.
The differential rates of 504 designations is not so much an indictment of a system that is broken or fraudulent as it is a reflection of the huge economic gaps that persist in our society. In spite of the occasional bad actor, like the psychologist doling out diagnoses to Rick Singer’s students in the Varsity Blues scandal, there is no strong evidence to suggest that affluent students are unfairly or fraudulently receiving diagnoses to gain academic advantages. Rather, affluent students are more likely to be tested for disabilities, given their parents’ educational levels, awareness of the benefits of testing, and superior economic resources. This is about access, one of the major themes we have been investigating as a society.
To remedy this situation, we need to increase access to educational testing for lower-income students. We need to ensure students from lower levels of socioeconomic status have access to the tools they need to succeed in school. Universal screening mandates, like the one recently passed in Georgia requiring dyslexia screening in all public schools, are a step in the right direction, but still do not ensure full testing and accommodations for all students who might need them. Until we systematically address awareness and access, more low-income students will continue to have their disabilities go undiagnosed and suffer the consequences. Increasing access to educational testing for lower-income students should be our primary goal.
Next, we need to consider the schools where the rates of accommodation are drifting well beyond the national averages. The NYT article points to certain highly affluent schools where the rates of accommodation have risen to 18%, far beyond the national average of 2.7%. In cases like these, there seems to have been a cultural shift within the school, and the high 504 designation rate should raise some questions among the administration, particularly when the rates of 504-seeking have skyrocketed in recent years.
It is important that students with disabilities receive the academic support they need to thrive and be successful in school. Securing an official diagnosis and receiving school-based accommodations for disabilities can be transformational for many students. We have to depend upon the professional integrity of those administering the tests and the school administrators who manage the allocation of accommodations in the school. As we have seen, some parents will attempt to secure unearned advantages for their students, and we need professionals who will maintain their professional integrity to ensure the system continues to function.