The misuse of SAT and ACT accommodations is an important and unfortunately wholly predictable story as we see in the current college admissions scandal.

As a school attorney, I see the current scandal to have been predictable and waiting-to-happen ever since 2003, when the College Board and ACT stopped flagging test results that had been taken under non-standard conditions. And yes, it is gameable.

My 2003 story, “Disabling the SAT,” actually predicted the current mess:

“The rates at which students receive testing accommodations also vary dramatically by zip code, with well-to-do, empowered parents being able to pressure the system into giving their children extra support…The Board’s decision to end flagging is likely to exacerbate these problems. Now that there is no consequence for taking the SAT with extra time, so-called diagnosis shopping will undoubtedly become even more common among the well heeled, who can afford the private psychologists and pricey lawyers.”

And, so, 16 years later, here we are!

I don’t blame parents for trying to “help” their kids. That’s what parents do. I blame these companies for creating this loophole. In my law practice, I saw parents becoming savvier, making their requests earlier (in junior high school or early in high school) to have a history of “extended time” for the College Board or ACT to act on. The loophole was provided for them by these companies. Who can blame them for using it?

But my concern over the years has been elsewhere. It’s been about these tests themselves. With “nonstandard” accommodations–mostly extended time—these tests are no longer standardized and no longer valid because they don’t measure what they purport to measure. That is, how a student performs in a timed situation. It’s time to get honest and real about this.

So why do these costly and by now uninterpretable tests still have such sway? Good question!

In terms of the misuse of accommodations, the numbers don’t add up. Alas, hard data from the College Board is not readily available. So, working backward, starting with the fact that 13% of students have “IEPs” and an estimated 2-3% have “504 plans.” There is some overlap in these two programs. And, of course, many students with disabilities who do NOT take these tests at all!

Yet, we have anecdotal stories that in some upscale suburbs close to 18-20% of students have extended time and in some private schools–around 40%! And, one can only imagine that in low income communities, those numbers are very low. Equity? Fairness? Honesty? Test validity? In an ungameable situation these numbers just couldn’t be!

What to do about this? These companies have choices. One obvious question becomes: when will they throw in the towel and stop timing any of these tests? That sounds easy. But NOT so fast…

….. because we know that there’s no free lunch. When and if they do stop timing these tests, the tests will be easier to take and less anxiety-producing. Here again, careful what you wish for as we will witness yet another notch in the lowering of standards in our schools and colleges because, in the real world, timing IS an important attribute and skill set in many areas of modern life. Pick your poison. Another story for another day.

Of course, these companies could go back to flagging test results given under non-standard conditions which would immediately wipe out this loophole. That is a perfectly valid and still legal option. To implement it, however, the companies would need good hard evidence of why they time these tests. Why? Why? Why? We still don’t have a clear answer to that basic question. And that’s where this story needs to start. Why are these tests timed? What important and fundamental knowledge or skills they measure that are time-dependent? This question needs an answer.

Or, we could throw up our hands and stop using these no-longer standardized tests—as many colleges already have. No testing! Some people would be relieved. I am not one of them, as it would mean yet another notch in our lowering standards. I would vote to bring back the flags and force the companies to explain why these tests are timed. Convince us that timing is essential. If they can’t do that, they should stop timing anyone and stop the madness.

About Miriam

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA—an expert in public education, focused on special education law— is a lawyer, author, speaker, consultant, and reformer. For more than 35 years, Miriam worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to translate complex legalese into plain English and focus on good practices for children. Now, she focuses her passion on reforming special education, with her new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Presentations include those at the AASA Conference, Orange County (CA), Boston College (MA), CADRE (OR), and the Fordham Institute (DC). Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, The University of Chicago Law Review on line, DianeRavitch.net, and The Atlantic Monthly on line.

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