It is that time of year that many high school students dread--ACT/SAT test taking time. These standardized tests are used to gain admission to colleges and graduate programs and to obtain certain professional licenses. These exams, which are designed to predict either the test taker’s future academic success or to test his or her knowledge of certain areas, are designed to be administered under uniform conditions and with time limits. However, these constraints may make taking the tests difficult for persons with disabilities. Without accommodations, the tests may instead reflect the individual’s disability, and not his or her aptitude.
There is a fundamental tension between disability-rights groups and private test taking companies. Testing companies understandably want to protect the integrity of their tests, ensure they are fair for all test takers, and guard against potential security breaches. Test takers, meanwhile, are finding documentation requirements requested by companies difficult to understand and unreasonable. Most applicants are seeking only accommodations they are already using and are frustrated to not receive the same accommodations for the tests. For instance, the GAO cites the case of a blind test taker who was denied the use of the screen-reading software with which he was most familiar and instead was required to use an unfamiliar program, creating additional anxiety for him. Another blind test taker complained that he was forced to use unfamiliar readers rather than ones whom he regularly used.
According to the New York Times, test taking companies fear providing unmerited accommodations, especially extra time, to test takers who may not have legitimate disabilities. A 2000 audit of California test takers raised fears of exaggerated or non-existent disabilities due to a disproportionate number of white affluent students requesting accommodations. Thus, companies give extra scrutiny to a “late diagnosis”; namely, one made just before or during high school, or one which occurs less than three years before the test date. When this occurs, ACT Inc. requests “full” documentation, including a professional evaluation, an overview, evidence of early and current impairment, and the impact of current accommodations. For some test takers, this information may be extremely difficult to access. For instance, test takers who are diagnosed as adults are frustrated by what they perceive as impossible demands to come up with documentation from pediatricians whom they no longer see or elementary schools they attended many years earlier.
Multiple agencies within the government are to enforce the law, but according to the GAO, they do it poorly. The Justice Department, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services all have responsibility for enforcement based on the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. However, the GAO found that the Justice Department fails to make a determination on each complaint it receives because of the volume of complaints received. Justice’s way of enforcing the law has been to rely on providing clarifications of the laws to the test taking companies. Justice has no systematic way of investigating complaints nor do they conduct compliance reviews. Ultimately, the GAO recommends that Justice needs to take steps to ensure a strategic approach to enforcement. And Justice agrees.
About half of all accommodations are requested by students who have learning disabilities. According to the Times 2010 article, these students, however, represent only a small percentage of students taking the ACT (nearly 4%) or the SAT (about 2%). ACT Inc. ultimately approves about 92% of requests for accommodations on the ACT, although it initially refuses about 25% of requests. The College Board, which administers the SAT, requests additional documentation from about 20% of applicants and ultimately approves 85% of requests. Clearly, a good percentage of test takers requesting accommodations are being asked for more information.
To prepare for this possibility, family advocates urge parents to start lining their ducks up in a row well before it is time for their child to register for these tests and start requesting accommodations. Everything needs to be copied in the child’s special education record so the parents will have any and all information should it be requested. Additionally, everything must be documented. If a student is receiving any kind of accommodation, parents must be sure that it is recorded either in the IEP or 504 Plan. It’s wonderful if a teacher is attempting to help a child by providing additional accommodations, but if it’s not written down, there is no proof that it is needed.
The websites for the test taking companies specify the various deadlines for requesting accommodations, and parents must ensure that they are adhering to these deadlines. Parents must also be mindful that if their child does not have a current psychological, testing (if not done by the school) must be scheduled many, many, months in advance. Most good psychologists will have lengthy waiting lists, and no one wants their child at the bottom of the queue. Additionally, not only do parents need to make sure that they are using an evaluator with the credentials requested by the test taking companies, they need an examiner who is experienced with advocating for accommodations for test takers. Evaluators also need to know which diagnostic tests are needed for which exam as well as possess the most recent versions of those tests.
The whole process of taking standardized college or graduate school entrance exams or professional licensure exams is inherently stressful, and it is unfortunate that test takers have to jump through so many hoops to request accommodations, thereby increasing their stress. With the release of the GAO report, however, the process of requesting accommodations will hopefully become a far less arduous process for applicants.