Sweeping Changes to SAT and ACT Accommodations

Jed Applerouth, PhD
December 15, 2016
min read

Testing accommodations may never be the same. In recent weeks both the College Board and ACT, Inc. have announced highly significant changes to their accommodations policies. In September, the federal government put the testing giants on notice that they were obliged to remove burdensome procedures and other obstacles to securing testing accommodations. The ACT responded on November 14th, announcing that it would open up new testing supports–including extended time, language supports and testing in a separate room–for English Learners. On December 1st, the College Board announced it would match all of those accommodations and go much further: beginning January 1, 2017, the College Board will automatically approve accommodations for the vast majority of students who receive school-based testing accommodations through a formal school-based plan (IEP or 504 Plan for public school students and comparable plans for private school students).

The College Board decision, in particular, is an incredible development that will have ramifications for tens of thousands of students with disabilities. Students who already receive accommodations in school through a formal plan will no longer, in most cases, have to jump through additional hoops to have those accommodation apply when they take the SAT or any other College Board test. More students will undoubtedly receive accommodations on the SAT, and the process for securing them will be dramatically streamlined.

Unlike some changes in the world of testing, which are driven entirely by the testing companies, this change came about through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and recent enforcement actions taken by the Department of Justice (DOJ).


The ADA has been a staple of civil rights legislation since it was passed in Congress in 1990. The ADA made it illegal to discriminate against those with disabilities or deny them reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. After several Supreme Court rulings eroded some of the power of the ADA, in 2008 Congress broadened the scope of the ADA, passing the ADA Amendments Act, making it easier for individuals to establish that they have a disability and receive accommodations for those disabilities, including accommodations on high stakes tests such as the SAT and ACT.

The DOJ increased its involvement in the arena of testing accommodations in response to a lawsuit that was filed in 2013 against the Law School Admission Council, Inc., the body that owns and administers the LSAT. The suit charged that the LSAT providers were subjecting accommodation seekers to onerous documentation requirements, denying requests for reasonable accommodations and “flagging” score reports for students who had received accommodations (a practice the College Board and ACT retired in 2004 after facing similar lawsuits). The DOJ’s civil rights division supported the suit against LSAC and helped secure the legal judgment,) which banned the “flagging” of any tests taken under nonstandard conditions, demanded comprehensive changes to the LSAC’s accommodations policies, and assigned $8.73 million in monetary relief to the plaintiffs. Through this intervention, the DOJ sent strong signals to the ACT and College Board that it intended to enforce the ADA’s testing guidelines.

Earlier this year the DOJ’s civil rights division turned its attention to accommodations on the SAT and ACT in response to complaints that both testing agencies were rejecting requests for accommodations that were routinely provided by high schools. These complaints were increasing in frequency due to the growth of state-mandated SAT or ACT testing that has taken hold across the country. Students accustomed to receiving accommodations in their schools but unable to secure testing accommodations with the testing agencies found themselves at a significant disadvantage on these required tests. As reported by Education Week, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division stated that testing companies were potentially violating the ADA when they demand “unnecessary documentation,” deny accommodations “without a really good reason," or fail to administer tests in a manner that reflects students’ “knowledge and skill, rather than their disabilities.” The DOJ proceeded to set up an online portal to solicit claims of potential ADA violations committed by the College Board and ACT.

ADA’s Final Rule

In September the DOJ published several documents outlining new guidance for testing accommodations, aligning with the ADA Amendments ACT, which was to go into effect October, 11 2016. The DOJ released both a high level overview and a comprehensive document, the final rule. The guidelines clearly advocated a more streamlined and less onerous process for securing accommodations.

The long form document clarifies that even students who are twice exceptional, those who are academically successful and have a disability, merit testing accommodations. The ADA guidelines insist that documentation, if at all required, be reasonable and limited. Proof of past testing accommodations should suffice for securing similar accommodations on other high stakes tests.

Foreshadowing the College Board’s announcement, the final rule indicates that students receiving testing accommodations in their high school (under an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan for public school students and under a formal plan for private school students) should “generally receive the same testing accommodations for a current standardized exam or high-stakes test.” Acknowledging the significant expense of psychoeducational testing, the ADA insists that testing agencies minimize “repeated costly testing.” Finally the ADA insists that testing agencies minimize delays for granting accommodations, minimize unnecessary documentation and get answers back to students in a timely manner.

The Department of Justice anticipates that faithful implementation of the amended ADA will yield a dramatic increase in the number of testing accommodations granted. Table 14 of the ADA’s final rule examines how many additional students at postsecondary institutions will become eligible for accommodations for extra time on their exams. Prior to the ADA Amendments ACT, some 310,000 students with Learning Disabilities or ADHD would request accommodations for extra time on exams. As a result of implementation of the Amended ADA, an additional 297,000 students would become eligible to receive accommodations for extra time on exams. That’s a 96% increase! Assuming similar ratios apply to students seeking accommodations for college entrance exams, tens of thousands of additional students will gain access to accommodations for extended timing.

ACT moves to comply with ADA

This summer the ACT released its streamlined online accommodations system, the Test Accessibility and Accommodations System (TAA). The new system shifted responsibilities to the Test Coordinator at the school, establishing the high school as the primary gatekeeper for testing accommodations. The ACT signalled it was aligning with ADA guidance, specifically referencing the ADA in its policy for documentation: “ACT approves accommodations for examinees with disabilities in accordance with the ADA.” The ACT also signaled that it was ready to accept more informal accommodations offered in schools (without the 504 or IEP) aligning with the ADA.

Nov 14, 2016, responding to the updated ADA guidance, the ACT announced it was streamlining accommodations for tens of thousands of English Learners. If students were in a designated English Learner’s Program and met the federal criteria for an English Learner (as outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act), they could apply through their high school counselor’s office to automatically receive testing supports for the ACT.

College Board Responds

December 1, 2016, the College Board officially responded to the updated ADA guidance and to the moves made by the ACT. The College Board agreed to match the ACT measure for measure. It would offer English Learners taking state-funded, school-day SATs language supports and testing accommodations. In a much bolder move, the College Board announced it was going to radically streamline the accommodations process for all students, essentially reducing it to a “2-question” process:

  1. Is the requested accommodation(s) in the student’s plan?
  2. Has the student used the accommodation(s) for school testing?

According to the College Board: “if the answer is yes to both questions, eligible students can be approved to receive most accommodations on College Board exams. This new process is expected to reduce the approval time for an overwhelming majority of accommodation requests.”

The College Board signalled it was aligning directly with the ADA. Per ADA guidance, if the high school grants a particular accommodation, the College Board will, in most cases, honor that accommodation. Thus public school students who receive testing accommodations through a current IEP or 504 Plan, can typically expect to have their same accommodations automatically approved for the SAT, PSAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP exams. This same policy applies to private school students with formal school-based plans that meet College Board criteria.

This is transformational. This new policy should streamline the entire accommodations process, reducing paperwork, unnecessary testing, appeals, stress and time for all involved.


The new ADA-inspired direction will undoubtedly have profound effects on students and administrators alike. Any system that involves “automatic approval” is a game-changer. More students will receive accommodations, and the process will be quicker and less cumbersome.

Some questions remain. Will the ACT follow the direction of the College Board and move towards a simplified “2-question” process for its students seeking accommodations? How will the testing agencies evaluate the duration of time that school-based accommodations have been in place? Will the College Board still want the student to have used the requested accommodation for 4 months in their high school before granting that accommodation on the SAT? Will the ACT look for a year of school-based accommodations? Will the ACT soften its position on the recency of formal psychoeducational testing and allow older testing, aligning with the updated ADA guidance? The College Board is signalling that it will allow the high schools, rather than a panel of CB evaluators, to be the primary gatekeepers of accommodations. Will the ACT follow suit?

During the coming year we will comprehend the magnitude of the effects of these new policies, as more students are able to secure testing accommodations in a less stressful and redundant manner. These changes are designed to protect rights of students with disabilities and create more equal access to educational opportunities. We look forward to reporting on the implementation and evolution of these new policies.

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