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Students With Disabilities Call College Admissions Cheating ‘Big Slap In The Face’

How should the college admissions process accommodate people with disabilities?

by Kaiser Health News | Updated on 3.15.19

For Savannah Treviño-Casias, this week’s news about the college admissions cheating scandal was galling, considering how much red tape the Arizona State University senior went through to get disability accommodations when she took the SAT.

“It felt like such a big slap in the face,” said Treviño-Casias, 23, who was diagnosed in sixth grade with dyscalculia, a disability that makes it more difficult to learn and do math. “I was pretty disgusted. It just makes it harder for people who actually have a diagnosed learning disability to be believed.”

Federal prosecutors have charged 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, in a nationwide bribery and fraud scheme to admit underperforming students to elite colleges. Some of the parents charged, the FBI said, paid to have their children diagnosed with bogus learning disabilities so they could get special accommodations on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Such accommodations can include giving students extra time on the tests or allowing them to take their exam in a room alone with a proctor to limit distractions. Prosecutors allege ringleaders in the scandal arranged for proctors in on the scam to correct students’ answers during or after the exam, or had someone else take the test for them.

Now, families and advocates are worried about a backlash that could make it harder for students with legitimate disabilities to get the accommodations they need to succeed.

“There are already too many hoops and hurdles disabled students must navigate in order to vindicate their civil right to higher education,” said Matthew Cortland, a lawyer and disability activist based in Boston. “My fear is that these celebrity fraudsters will incite a crackdown on accommodations. Schools and testing companies will make it even more burdensome for disabled students to get the accommodations that allow them to realize their civil right to access higher education.”

Federal law requires colleges and college testing companies to provide accommodations for students with documented disabilities, including learning disabilities. But in practice, it can be difficult for students — particularly low-income students — to get those accommodations. Students diagnosed in grade school may have to provide updated evaluations documenting their need for special accommodations — testing that can cost thousands of dollars.

Students with legitimate disabilities constantly have to fight the perception that they’re gaming the system, said Lindsay Jones, CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

“Many people in our society assume accommodations give you an advantage. They assume, ‘I, too, would have done better,’ which is a fundamental misunderstanding,” Jones said. “But these individuals are already facing skepticism. The college admissions scandal is incredibly damaging to a population that’s already fighting to prove that they are amazing and can achieve incredible things.”

The FBI did not charge any medical professionals who might have provided a fraudulent diagnosis.

Diane Blair-Sherlock, a real estate attorney in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park, didn’t have any trouble getting entrance exam accommodations for her daughter, who is deaf, although it took three months for the College Board, which administers the SAT, to approve a sign-language interpreter.

Her son, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, was another story. Blair-Sherlock said the College Board turned down her son’s application for accommodations on the SAT despite his having provided documentation of his disability. She finally succeeded after appealing the denial, and her son was granted extra time, breaks and an isolated area in which to take the test. He is now a student at the University of Illinois-Chicago — getting A’s and B’s, she said proudly — and Blair-Sherlock helps other parents facing similar difficulties.

“I’m looking for a level playing field,” Blair-Sherlock said. “You’re playing with kids’ lives here.”

The College Board, which also administers Advanced Placement (AP) tests, has said that requests for accommodations have increased in recent years as more students opt to take the exams, but didn’t respond to questions about specifics from California Healthline. Such requests rose from 80,000 in 2010-11 to 160,000 in 2015-16, and about 85 percent of requests for accommodation were approved, according to recent news reports.

In 2017, under pressure from disability advocates and amid inquiries from the U.S. Department of Justice, the company said it would streamline applications for accommodations; students who had been granted existing accommodations at their high schools — extra time on tests, for example — would have the same accommodations automatically approved for exams such as the SAT.

When documentation is requested, the College Board requires that a diagnosis be made by “someone with appropriate professional credentials” and that a diagnosis be current. For example, for students with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, evaluations should be no more than five years old. The College Board said it combats organized cheating by banning cellphones, analyzing test-taker behaviors and enhancing security measures at test centers, among other actions, though it failed in a number of the cases the FBI investigated.

The ACT organization, which administers the test by the same name, also requires students to have a professionally diagnosed disability and generally to already be getting accommodations in their school classrooms. It may require additional documentation, depending on the type of disability. Students reporting mood or anxiety disorders, for example, would have to provide information on the psychological tests used, as well as a history of medication and treatment. Documentation of a psychiatric disorder must be current within the past year. The ACT declined to comment on whether the number of students granted accommodations has gone up in recent years, citing the ongoing investigation.

Kaiser Health News

Written by Kaiser Health News

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(12)
  • Kathy
    03/15/2019
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    It takes almost an act of God to get students tested in elementary and intermediate school... most schools just want to retain them.... every student I SST, they qualified , but they had to be retained instead of getting the services they need..1in 4 students have dyslexia. Our district now tests every primary student. All students need to have their accommodations ... the playing field isn’t equal ... then there is pressure on these state tests that are ridiculous . When do you as an adult make on review the all in one on how you perform your job. You don’t , so why do we do this in education. Summative assessment is important along with formative. Teachers get paid based on this one day school. You know who makes out, $$$testing companies and representatives ... Equality and equity are to different things. We have equal access to education , but does every school get the same services .. rich districts vs money challenged districts. Places like Texas haven’t funded school properly since around 2008, pre-recession. Is the playing field fair... no!!!

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  • David
    03/15/2019
    ···

    How about we look at how the privatization of post-secondary education and how the for-profit system has destroyed the integrity of the entire system! You have to take out tons of loans, and be in debt for potentially decades! We need free college badly, and I hope my representatives (they won’t) will see that this is the probably modus operandi of many of these schools. We pay the most money for the worst education anywhere in the world.

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  • Linda
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Teaching testing is harming our education programs. Instead of teaching subject courses, kids are being taught how to pass achievement tests. School accreditation is based on testing scores. Instead of adjusting to teach the disabled in a manner that works for the individuals, school are recommending home schooling programs or specialized private schools. This must change. Every child is entitled to an education in which they learn and taught so they enjoy learning. Test teachers to see if they qualify to teach their subject(s). Continue to pay good teachers who work with & encourage students. Teachers should build self-esteem in students, not tear it down. Asperger’s, a form of autism, requires a structured form of teaching, & an understanding of their mindset. Socializing is difficult; they are often said to be rude when in actuality, it’s just a failure to understand. Education systems must do better.

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  • Matthew
    03/15/2019
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    Yes. Schools and educators know who has 504’s and IEP’s. Let them be a source of who is eligible to need extra time for SAT’s and ACT’s. The students should not be punished from colleges and universities because of learning disabilities.

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  • Cindy
    03/15/2019
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    Another scam of college admissions and testing, students that can get disability accommodations are given more time for testing, questions are asked verbally, explanation of questions and an unfair advantage over hard working students. The students get as much time as they need to take any college test 3-5 hours whatever they need. The professor must ask the student verbally if they have a reading disability like dyslexia which they did not receive in Middle or High School but go to college and get “special” unfair accommodations.

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  • Rebekah
    03/16/2019
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    Decades of cuts to schools and profit-driven education schemes have turned our education system into a nightmare. But the rich don't care because they only want ever lower taxes. Students with disabilities are the last on the list. Make college free for all!

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  • Dallas
    03/17/2019
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    Most students requiring accommodations have been awarded accommodations in elementary and high school. This should be part of the criteria for college awards. If a student doesn't have a history of accommodations from previous school years, then I would think the request would deserve some scrutiny.

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  • Peggy
    03/17/2019
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    Somehow whenever there is an accommodation for those with a disability, people try and cheat the system to get in on it. Case in point; disable parking placards. Fake service animals. People will justify it in their own minds. There is no gray area: cheating is cheating. Lying is always a lie. Shame on those who think otherwise. And really bad parenting in this case.

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  • Peter
    03/15/2019
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    pay them an allowance

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