Operation Varsity Blues was full of salacious accusations detailing how wealthy parents allegedly cheated to get their kids into elite schools through hefty bribes and outright lies. But one particular deceit orchestrated by William Singer, the college-consultant fixer at the center of the scam, drew the ire of the disabilities-rights community: the abuse of extended-time accommodations on standardized tests. “All the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test,” he allegedly told one parent. “So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time.”
Time extension is just one of several accommodations that students can apply for when registering for standardized tests—including the SAT, the ACT, the MCAT, and the LSAT—as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The alternative arrangements run the gamut from food in the testing room to a computer to fill out the test, and take into consideration disabilities both physical (cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy) and invisible (ADHD, autism, diabetes, dyslexia). Under the ADA, accommodations such as these are meant to help students with disabilities that would significantly affect their capacity to complete the test.
The extra-time accommodation is by far the most common. The amount of extra time that students get depends on the test; for example, the College Board, which runs the SAT, allows extensions of 50 or 100 percent additional time—or even more in rare cases. Though this isn’t the first time that wealthy parents have concocted bogus diagnoses in an attempt to get an edge for their kids, the high-profile indictment has made disability-rights professionals fearful that it could curtail disabled students’ access to conditions in which they can “actually perform at the same level of someone who does not have a disability,” says Kristie Orr, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability. While the College Board and the ACT did not specifically mention the abuse of extra time in their statements after news of the scandal broke, each doubled down on their commitment to fairness and ensuring a level playing field.
These parents went to such great lengths to get extra time for their kids only because these tests run at breakneck speed—a feature that routinely stresses out test takers of all abilities. Students are often encouraged to be strategic about budgeting their time: how long to spend on a given question, whether to use a calculator or do mental math, when to give up and fill in bubbles at random. A time-limited test is a bad measure of the things that schools theoretically want to see, such as critical-thinking skills and college readiness, says Ruth Colker, an Ohio State University law professor and a scholar of disabilities discrimination.
“Whether you can tell me the answer quickly has nothing to do with whether you, in fact, know the content,” she told me. “And there are some people who, for whatever reason, are pretty quick at things. They don’t necessarily have more depth of knowledge, and depth of knowledge [is] what we should care about for admissions purposes.”
In a paper in the Seton Hall Law Review, Colker makes the argument for eliminating that quick pace altogether. Under the ADA, organizations such as the College Board aren’t permitted to use tests that have a “disparate impact on the basis of disability”—in this case, timed tests that students with disabilities have trouble completing—unless they can prove that those conditions are necessary for a test’s measurement. Colker says that testing organizations haven’t sufficiently shown that the time limit meets that standard. Though the College Board has released research on the impact of extended time on students’ performance on the SAT, finding that “extra time helps medium- and high-ability test-takers with and without disabilities,” it hasn’t released any evidence that the quick pace is indeed essential to the test. A spokesman for the College Board said in a statement that time limits are “necessary logistically,” and cited an assertion by David Coleman, the College Board’s CEO, that the latest version of the test has “43 percent more time per question than any similar exam.”
Colker’s proposed alternative would consist of a test with fewer questions and more time to process the questions and double-check answers, therefore giving students more time to actually demonstrate their knowledge. For example, Colker proposes restructuring the LSAT, the admissions test for law school, which currently has six 35-minute sections—five with 22 to 28 questions, and one essay component—and gives only one break in the three-and-a-half-hour test. It’s an “unbelievably exhausting test,” she says, remembering her one experience as a law-school applicant. Instead, Colker advocates for splitting the test into three 52-minute sections, with a break between each, and 40 percent fewer questions overall. The test would still run three hours, she says, but students of all processing abilities would have more time to answer each question.
A big problem with the current time crunch, Colker says, is that it puts the onus on students with disabilities to prove their need for extra time—to read, to process, to understand what a test is asking of them. Compiling the documents to apply for an accommodation can be costly; if denied, test takers have the option to appeal the decision, but that requires additional documentation and money. Moreover, ability isn’t binary, but the way accommodations currently work treats it as such: Either you get extra time, or you don’t.
Take, for example, a case in which a New York woman sued the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners for denying her extended time on a medical-license test—even though she had previously received extra time for a hearing impairment and dyslexia, which slowed her ability to read. When the plaintiff, Bernadette Bibber, challenged the decision, a court decided that her disability wasn’t severe enough to warrant the alternative arrangements.
To some medical professionals, this kind of scrutiny over who gets accommodations isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I look at everything but the kitchen sink,” says Marla Shapiro, an Atlanta-based developmental neuropsychologist who helps students apply for testing accommodations. “I want every K-to-12 report card. I want all standardized testing.” The evaluation is rigorous, she says, because she doesn’t recommend accommodations lightly. “Parents are paying three or four thousand dollars for these comprehensive analyses, and they expect something for it, but I’m not one to sell diagnoses,” she says. “It does such a disservice to those who are truly in need to hand it out like candy because somebody’s paying you a lot of money.”
Of course, if the tests were slowed down, other accommodations would still have to be available; getting rid of the quick pace wouldn’t alleviate the need for Braille test booklets or wheelchair accessibility. But extended time has become especially fraught because researchers note that it’s impossible to pinpoint precisely how much time a student with a disability needs in order for a test to be equitable for them. When should a disability require someone to have 100 percent extended time instead of 50 percent? Or 50 percent instead of none at all? Where and how is that line drawn?
That murkiness over who is “truly in need” of an accommodation is one reason that Colker wants to reframe how people think about test accessibility. “I am not making the radical argument that we should get rid of standardized testing altogether,” Colker told me. “I understand it would be difficult to admit students into college and law school if all you have is student grades. But I think we should at least see what would happen if we give every student the extended time.”
In that scenario, all test takers would no longer have to rush through a long test, instead of just those who can navigate the byzantine application for extended time. But for the time being, the alleged fraudster parents implicated in the cheating scandal made clear that the current alternative-arrangements system is far too easy to game—and that’s ultimately to the detriment of students with disabilities who genuinely need the accommodations.
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