Evidence of Need for Accommodations for SAT/ACT

This is a memo I prepared for parents of students, and students themselves, seeking accommodations for the SAT and ACT college entrance exams.  It also applies to graduate level high-stakes exams such as the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, etc.  I revised it after hearing a presentation by the psychologist in charge of granting accommodations at the Educational Testing Service, which owns and manages the SAT, at the 2012 Learning Disability Association annual conference (at which I also presented, with colleague Jordi Kleiner, on LD/ADD evaluation).

As the SAT and ACT exams approach, parents, students, and therapists, sometimes wonder whether to request accommodations, such as for extra time taking the exam.  It used to be the case that a therapist’s note stating that a student had a disability and needed extended time or other accommodations was sufficient, but that is no longer the case.  SAT and ACT now require both substantial evidence of disability and evidence of both eligibility for, and use of, the specific accommodation(s) being requested, including:

1.  An evaluation documenting both that a student has a disability and that the disability, in his or her specific case, impacts processing speed or effectiveness in reading, mathematics, or other cognitive or learning processes in such a way as to require extra time (or other accommodation).  A copy of the report of evaluation has to be provided with the request for accommodation, not just be referred to by a therapist or other third party.  It has to include detailed test results and supporting information (such as case history, behavioral observations and teacher and parent rating forms or interviews).  It is not enough for an evaluator to say that a student has a condition, such as ADHD or anxiety disorder, and therefore needs extra time.  The evaluation has to document that the disorder affects this particular student in such a way as to substantially affect the student’s information processing and test taking.  “Document,” here, means not just saying that it does, but showing how it does, through empirical methods.

2. A history of the student actually having both been found eligible, in school, for the specific accommodations being requested, and having actually used those accommodations.  This history should document a track record of accommodations going back several years–not weeks or months.  It is not sufficient for the school to have found the student eligible for an accommodation which the student did not use.

There are several situations in which requests for extra time or other accommodations are unlikely to be granted by SAT or ACT:

•Parents asking us to request extra time, or other accommodations, on behalf of a student whose record does not contain the necessary supporting evidence referred to above.

•Therapists making the request on behalf of student patients, without the supporting evidence referred to above.

•Parents asking for extra time, or other accommodations, for students who have received them on an informal basis, that is, without an evaluation specifically calling for them based on a diagnosed disability, and without being provided as part of a formal educational plan for that student.

The date of the evaluation may make a difference to SAT or ACT.  Generally, evaluations over three years old may be regarded as too old to be valid.  First-time evaluations done shortly before the request for accommodations may be regarded as done solely or primarily for that purpose, rather than to elucidate the needs of the student for educational accommodations.

Another issue is timeliness of our receiving the documentation from parents/families in order to include them in our documentation to ACT or SAT.  Note that evaluations and any supporting documents need to be on file at school within the time limit specified prior to the date of submission to ACT or SAT.  Evaluations or other documents submitted after that date may not be included with the request for accommodations, or may be included without being integrated into our request.

Extra Time On High Stakes Exams

I’ve been in practice long enough to remember when very few students applied for extra time on the SAT/ACT college entrance exams, or the GRE, LSAT, and MCATS graduate exams, or professional board exams, and all that was needed was a doctor’s note that the student needed extra time due to a certain condition.  That was when parents and adult students thought it was stigmatizing to be labeled with a disability.  Parents often resisted allowing it even when school staff thought the child should be evaluated to receive accommodations, including extra time for exams.

Then parents and adult students began to realize that having extra time on high stakes tests could confer a competitive advantage, and there was a trickle, then a flood, of parents seeking diagnoses for their children, and adult students seeking diagnoses for themselves.  This coincided with the widespread recognition of ADHD and related attention disorders, and resulted in a flood of applications to SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT and MCATS for extra time.  Many of these applications were based on attention disorders which were diagnosed for the first time just as the student was approaching the high-stakes exam, and were supported by flimsy or shoddy evaluations.

The result was that the test organizations pushed back with a series of guidelines for eligibility, based on the student’s having a history of needing and receiving accommodations in school before applying for accommodations for the high stakes test, including:

• Learning or attention disorders diagnosed earlier in life, preferably supported by subsequent re-evaluations (generally at 3-year intervals)

•Diagnosis based on evaluations including case histories and standardized measures, tending to be more thorough rather than less

• A history of accommodations having been provided by the school(s) the student attended

• A history of the student actually using the accommodations that were available

This policy favors early evaluation and accommodations in order to develop a track record by the time the application for accommodations on the high stakes test is made.  Students who have managed to get by despite learning or attention disorders, and who are evaluated and diagnosed for the first time in high school or college or professional school, especially just prior to the high-stakes exam, are unlikely to be found eligible for extra time.  High school and college special education staff have learned to be suspicious of claims for accommodation from newly diagnosed students.

The result is that there are fewer students qualifying for extra time on the basis of inadequate diagnosis and documentation, but also that some students who really should qualify can’t.  This is unfortunate because, at any point along the educational path, students who have been able to keep up so far despite their learning or attention issues may find themselves no longer able to do so.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on high-stakes tests often leads parents and older students to think about evaluation just as a way to qualify for extra time, a gatekeeping event, rather than as a method of clarifying the learning styles and issues of students so that they can know themselves better and learn more effectively.

Review of “Hanging By A Twig: Understanding and Counseling Adults with Learning Disabilities and ADD,” by Carol Wren, with Psychotherapeutic Commentary by Jay Einhorn

(Reviewed by Delores S. Doherty, MD, FRCPC, St. John’s Newfoundland, in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2006, 15, 95-6)

This book could not have come into my experience at a better time.  My patients are growing up, and lo and behold, they are still disabled!

Hanging by a Twig is the way one disabled adult described her life, i.e., just hanging on and always precariously.  Mary’s story is told in chapter 2, intermingled with information on the historical context of our current understanding of learning disabilities, learning styles, cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  Each chapter in this book is built around the story of an adult with specific learning issues.  Carol Wren moves us through the stated purpose of the chapter while Jay Einhorn gives us a psychotherapeutic commentary on the issues described.  Together they take us through development of self, coherence of self, adult skill set, self-esteem, addiction, and other co-morbidities, looking at the issue and its impact on the individual.

The pervasive nature of these impairments of cognition on the overall functioning of the individual becomes very evident as we read these real life stories.  In addition, the challenges for doing therapy with these people, who are intrinsically at heightened risk for personality distortions, jumps from the pages.  The authors make clear the need to help these adults understand their own strengths and limitations.  Then they are better able to make informed choices in regard to further education and career, to seek appropriate supports for themselves, and to begin to consider the impact of their disabilities might make on personal relationships.

As a group involved with children and adolescents, I believe that we also have an obligation to attempt to help our adult colleagues understand that these individuals suffer.

This book is a resource that we can recommend with enthusiasm.  It is well written and provides clear descriptions of a number of possible scenarios as well as suggestions for management.  I will be encouraging those I know who counsel adults with residual developmental concerns to read and learn from Hanging by a Twig.  I have already recommended it to our local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association.  It is an excellent resource and an enjoyable reading experience.

(published by Norton and Co., New York, 2000)

Nine Criteria For Usefulness in Evaluations of Learning and Attention Issues

(As consulting psychologist, I am asked to review private evaluations of learning and attention issues in students, and explain them to administrators, teachers, and even the parents whose children have been evaluated.  Since the quality and usefulness of evaluations varies, I prepared this memo as a guide for parents, as consumers, and evaluators, as providers.)    

This memo is prepared for parents who are considering seeking evaluation of learning and attention issues in their children, and also for potential providers of such evaluations.
Methods for evaluating learning and attention issues and disorders, and for reporting on evaluations, have evolved over the years, not necessarily in a consistent or integrated way. Professionals from several fields, with varied backgrounds, have entered the marketplace as evaluation providers. As a result, we have seen evaluations of varying quality and usefulness. Here are nine criteria that characterize a more useful evaluation:

1A specific problem statement provides the focus for the evaluation. It tells the readers what this evaluation is about, and why it is important for this child to be evaluated for this problem at this time.

2. A detailed case history places the referring problem within the context of the child’s developmental and family history. Part of understanding a learning and/or attention disorder is understanding its history in this child’s life, and whether it might also be reflected in this child’s family history.

3. Information from the school, from teachers and other staff who may have useful information to report, tells readers how the school sees the child and the referring problem. Detailed descriptions by teachers and staff help to clarify the the referring problem. Observations by the evaluator of the student in school can also shed light on the referring problem, especially where classroom behavior is contributing to the referring problem.

4. Information from other sources, which may include therapists, tutors, former teachers, etc., who can contribute to the evaluator’s, and the readers’, understanding of the child.

5. Behavioral observations of the child during the evaluation process, with specific reference to the referring problem. The evaluator’s astute observations of the child’s behavior can contribute to the evaluator’s, and the readers’, understanding of the child.

6. Selection of tests that are specific enough and comprehensive enough to address the referring problem. Selecting tests that focus on the child’s cognitive functioning with reference to the referring problem will help the evaluator and readers understand the child’s cognitive functioning with regard to the referring problem. Where multiple explanations of a child’s problem are possible, it can be important to have testing across different areas in order to rule some out and establish others as associated with the problem.

7. Report of test results, including all scores. Reporting all scores supports the evaluator’s conclusions and provides professional readers with the information necessary to understand the basis of those conclusions.

8. Discussion of all the foregoing information leads to an impression about why the child is having the referring problem, in the context of his or her developmental history and cognitive processes, including a diagnosis, if appropriate. By discussing all the foregoing information, the report makes sense of the child’s referring problem, and helps readers make sense of it also.

9. Recommendations that are specific to the referring problem, the specific child, and the child’s situation, will help insights in the report find integration and application in the child’s educational program. When multiple recommendations are included in a report, prioritizing recommendations helps educators and parents determine the most appropriate next steps in supporting the child’s education.