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.