Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, I had the chance to share our insights into working with students with learning differences, specifically through the college admissions process. We focus below on the topic of seeking special accommodations on standardized tests, an important but controversial topic:

Understanding Special Accommodations on Standardized Tests

Accommodations for the SAT and ACT are designed to adjust the test-taking environment so that it works for students with learning differences, enabling them to “show what they know.” They do not affect the standardization of the tests.

Research generally backs their efficacy. In the 1970s and ’80s, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom showed that learning speed is not an indicator of intelligence and that, with additional time, students who otherwise struggle can achieve at the highest levels. A research review published more recently comes to a similar conclusion, noting that students with learning differences benefit more than their typical peers when granted additional time. But this finding isn’t universal (here, for example, researchers reached the opposite conclusion), and the existing research is far from exhaustive. Such contradictions are disappointing to those of us who have seen accommodations work well at the individual level, as they undermine the credibility of accommodations overall.

Also undermining their credibility: accommodations are not always used as intended.

The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal illustrated that the system is open to abuse. That scandal seemed to reify the most damaging myths about learning status and educational accommodations — among them, that accommodations amount to special treatment.

When used as intended, they don’t.

Further, while Varsity Blues may have hurt the public’s perception of test accommodations, it likely did not impact their treatment by admissions teams. That’s because these teams cannot see accommodation status, thanks to a 2003 decision by the College Board (administrator of the SAT) and ACT. ACT’s recent payment of more than $16 million to settle charges that it was improperly disclosing disability status indicates that regulators and watchdogs are serious about keeping accommodation status private.

Ultimately, students and families must decide for themselves whether to apply for accommodations. If they can enable students with learning differences to better demonstrate their knowledge in a testing environment, there’s no good reason not to. (Here is a helpful breakdown of how to apply.)

The most important takeaway for students and families is this: the SAT or ACT should not be the first time a student tests with accommodations. Just as accommodations throughout a student’s career can better position them to be attractive college applicants, so too can a track record of accommodations illuminate which ones actually help. This ought not to be an 11th hour effort but a sustained effort over years to articulate the unique learning profile of the student. 

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO