Controversy has existed for years around the subject of SAT and ACT accommodations, and that controversy seems to revolve around three critical themes:
1) Equity—Are all deserving students receiving fair access to SAT and ACT accommodations?
2) Legitimacy—Are the accommodations the right ones for the specific diagnoses?
3) Validity—Do these SAT and ACT accommodations truly accommodate the disabling conditions or rather do they modify the exam, undermining its standardization?
Equity. Equity is a serious matter: A 2000 California audit concluded that those getting SAT or ACT accommodations “were disproportionately white, or were more likely to come from an affluent family or to attend a private school.” More than a decade later, the Chicago Tribune’s review of data obtained under open records laws indicated in Illinois that the percentage of test takers with accommodations doubled the national average. Schools in wealthy districts with predominantly white students were at the top of the list.
Where there is wealth, there is an elevated level of advocacy and subsequently elevated levels of SAT or ACT accommodations. That trend indicates that while accommodations are intended to level the playing field for disabled students, the administration of those accommodations is not working out equitably by socioeconomic factors.
Legitimacy. An interesting criticism on the legitimacy of accommodations has been offered by Boston University professor Ari Trachtenberg is his Sept. 2016 Chronicle of Higher Ed piece “ADA in the Classroom: Suitable Accommodation or Legalized Cheating?” He argues principally that there is a lack of research evidence for the connection between an accommodation and the disability. “In effect, both the College Board and some colleges (which base their own policies for accommodations around the board’s practices) appear to be providing an advantage to some students on rigorously controlled tests, without a rigorous foundation for the accommodation.” At the heart of his argument, again, is the matter of time.
He sees the granting of extended time as a one-size-fits-all concession The College Board, ACT, and universities make without a specific rationale for the merits of that accommodation in relation to the specific disability in question:
“Accommodations must be specific to circumstances, and transparently published for specific disabilities, just like grading rubrics and curves. It may be convenient for both the universities and the students to indiscriminately agree to simple accommodations such as time extension for a whole host of disabilities in prima facie compliance with the ADA, but this dilutes the integrity of the academic process without providing a definable benefit, either to those students who are disabled, or to those who are not.”
Trachtenberg’s premise is that time matters: he values some speeded component of his tests, and so accommodating that component—unless rigorously justified—could modify the validity of his exams.
Validity. Trachtenberg’s line of reasoning is taken to a logical extreme by Bruce Pardy of Queen’s University Faculty of Law in his August 2016 Education and Law Journal article “Head Starts and Extra Time: Academic Accommodation on Post-Secondary Exams and Assignments for Cognitive and Mental Disabilities.”
Pardy argues that accommodations are themselves unfair:
“Universities and colleges routinely grant extra time on exams and assignments to accommodate students with cognitive and mental disabilities. Such accommodation is inappropriate and inconsistent with the law. Exams and assignments are, in part, competitions. Like a head start in a race, extra time means that the competition is no longer valid. Races test speed, and no accommodation can be made for disabilities that affect speed, which is the bona fide criterion of the race.”
Again, it’s a matter of time here: for Pardy, speed equals intelligence, so timing equals validity. This buried premise seems to be at the heart of the legitimacy/validity criticism. If the speeded nature of a test is a part of what is being tested, then timing cannot be said to be an extraneous source of difficulty. If timing is a part of the test, then altering time modifies the test, thereby changing its standardization.
The Controversy: The Advocates of SAT and ACT Accommodations
Special education researchers and advocates like Dr. Nicole Ofiesh, who have published extensively on test validity and test accommodations, maintain that there is no unfair advantage when students with learning disabilities are given extended time. Several of her studies* demonstrate that students who do not have learning disabilities do NOT make statistically significant gains with extended time.
Those of us who work closely with students in this space understand: all the time in the world will not help a student answer a question if the student fundamentally lacks the academic skills to answer the question.
However, for those who have the skills and need more time to demonstrate what they know, extended time levels the playing field, allowing those students the fair chance to show what they know.
Ofiesh’s work helps isolate some of the central factors of learning disabilities that impact student performance on speeded exams. She argues that “Processing speed is an important predictor in the need for extended time, but not all individuals with low processing speed need the accommodation. Reading fluency and most fluency tests are stronger predictors.”
Ofiesh is also mindful to identify the nuances of the learning disabilities in relation to specific accommodations by noting important variables like working memory deficits and ADHD. Some students often present like they don’t need extended time because they can do well on simple tests, when in fact the problem is that speeded academic tests at higher levels of rigor reveal the impact of working memory deficits. Similarly, students with ADHD reveal more stark functional limitation when presented with multiple-hour, rigorous testing; in their case, extended time alone will not satisfy.
What good is giving a student with ADHD extended-time same-day testing? Putting a student with ADHD in a room for 6 hours hardly accommodates that specific diagnosis, while multiple-day testing will, allowing the student to break up the test into concentrated, briefer periods of focus.
To get this subtle matching of disability with SAT or ACT accommodation right, it’s important to look at the history of the student’s disability and how specific aspects of cognition relate to aspects of reading, writing, and math within the specific construct of the ACT or SAT.
Ofiesh’s work then on some level addresses Trachtenberg’s concerns: there is a lack of research evidence connecting the disability to the accommodation. In that sense, Trachtenberg is correct.
The science around learning disability is emerging, and further research is needed to better tie the variables of specific deficits in processing speed, reading fluency, working memory, attention, and other aspects of cognition to the specific academic tasks on a given test and establish more precisely the accommodations required.
This does not, however, mean that the effort to do so – because not yet fully understood or complete – should be either abandoned or declared unfair or impugned as cheating.
Fortunately, the field has its tireless disability rights advocates like Marybeth Kravets, who have worked towards removing misconception and stigma associated with learning disabled students and special accommodations. Kravets and others have lobbied for example to remove the asterisk from special accommodations reporting that would flag students who tested with accommodations and thereby make them easily profiled by college admissions committees.
In the fall of 2003, ACT and SAT policies agreed to drop those notations as did the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Ultimately, test-makers agreed that flagging discourages many students from applying for necessary accommodations and can create a barrier to educational opportunity.
Kravets is advancing the effort and science to match specific diagnoses with specific accommodations through her “K&W Guide” (Random House/Princeton Review), an 800-plus-page encyclopedia that lists special education services at each college, admissions requirements, and contact information for program administrators.
Both critics and advocates can at least agree that special accommodations for the learning disabled cannot be approached as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Tailoring the accommodations to the specific disabilities and case histories of each student is necessary for a right-fit educational plan for every learning-disabled student.
The Controversy over SAT and ACT Accommodations: Conclusions
In the end, there are two important opportunities that emerge from the debate:
1) As advocates for SAT and ACT accommodations, we continue to fight for the rights of all disabled students, study the nuances of matching learning needs to accommodations, and promote the equitable sharing of information, resources, and advocacy support for underserved students with learning disabilities.
2) As educators, we continue to research seriously the relation between timing, assessments, and student learning and performance.
It’s high time that the science of individual learning and the standardization of timed assessments better align to provide appropriate and fair opportunities for students to show what they know. The trend towards this alignment is at least heading in the right direction – both in the growing attention to the science of individual learning and in the progressive reform of assessment design.
For the sake of the students we serve, we will continue to study the matter of time, explore the science of individual learning, and advocate for fair SAT and ACT accommodations for all students.
Ofiesh, N. & Bisagno, J. (2009). Test validity and test accommodations. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, (15) 3.
Ofiesh, N. (2009). Students with LD and high stakes testing. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, (15) 3.