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Many more students, especially the affluent, get extra time to take the SAT

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/22/2019 Douglas Belkin, Jennifer Levitz and Melissa Korn

At Scarsdale High School north of New York City, one in five students is eligible for extra time or another accommodation such as a separate room for taking the SAT or ACT college entrance exam.

At Weston High School in Connecticut, it is one in four. At Newton North High School outside Boston, it’s one in three.

“Do I think that more than 30% of our students have a disability?” said Newton Superintendent David Fleishman. “No. We have a history of over-identification [as learning-challenged] that is certainly an issue in the district.”

Across the country, the number of public high-school students getting special allowances for test-taking, such as extra time, has surged in recent years, federal data show.

And students in affluent areas such as Scarsdale, Weston and Newton are more likely than students elsewhere to get the fastest-growing type of these special allowances, known as “504” designations, a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from 9,000 public schools found.

The special allowances don’t apply specifically to college entrance exams. They apply to all tests the students take while in school.

The effect, however, is to make these students much more likely to receive extra time or another special accommodation when they take an exam to get into college.

Related video: The College Admissions Scandal Plays Into These Two Trends


The 504 designation is meant to give students who have difficulties such as anxiety or ADHD a chance to handle the stress of schoolwork at their own pace and level the playing field. It often lets them have a separate room for test-taking and more time to do it.

The Journal analysis shows that at public schools in wealthier areas, where no more than 10% of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches, an average of 4.2% of students have 504 designations giving them special test-taking allowances such as extra time.

Only 1.6% of students have these designations at public schools in poorer areas, defined as those where 75% or more of students are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, the Journal found.

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Special accommodations such as extra time and a separate room for test-taking were a part of this spring’s high-profile admissions-test scandal. But college counselor William “Rick” Singer has admitted he went much further by sometimes having an accomplice at the test center correct students’ answers, or bribing coaches to designate students as recruited athletes—techniques that amounted to fraud. By contrast, the rise in the number of students gaining school designations meant for those with learning problems reflects parent legally trying to give their children an edge.

Testing against the clock is one of the toughest aspects of college entrance exams. In the normal process, students take the multiple-choice exams in a classroom, with a No. 2 pencil, in three hours. A sixth of students who take the ACT college entrance exam instead of the SAT don’t finish in the cutoff time, said that exam’s sponsor.

Pressure to score well is intense. Students admitted to New York University for the class entering this fall had lofty median SAT scores of 1480 out of a possible 1600, NYU says. Harvard said more than 3,400 of those who applied to be part of the class now graduating had perfect scores in the math part of the test.

The appeal of having extra time to take such exams grew when the College Board, the SAT’s sponsor, in 2003 stopped notifying colleges if a test-taker had been given extra time. The sponsor of the ACT test, a nonprofit that is also called ACT, doesn’t tell colleges either.

To get that extra time on a college entrance exam, a public-school student usually first must be deemed to need some sort of special allowance at school, either an Individualized Education Program or the program known as 504.

An IEP is typically for students who are eligible for special education and struggle to learn in a regular classroom. Students with 504 designations, named for a section of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, also receive special allowances or help in doing their schoolwork.

The number of students given the 504 designation more than tripled from 2000 to 2016, according to federal statistics.

In turn, the number of students who could get extra time when they took their exams for college admission also soared.

Requests to the College Board for such special accommodations jumped 200% from the 2010-2011 year to the 2017-18 year, the organization said. Over that same time frame the number of test takers increased by 25%.

High schools submit the great majority of these requests. Most ask for extra time. The College Board approves 94% of the requests, it said.

ACT didn’t say how many it approves but said the portion of its exam-takers who got special accommodations rose to 5.1% in 2017 from 4.1% in 2013.

Public high schools decide which students get a special designation like a 504 that puts them in line for more time. The schools may confer the designation in response to a request from a teacher or from a parent. Typically, a medical professional must assess a student and decide he or she has some condition such as anxiety or attention problems.

In affluent communities, parents are more likely to know this option exists, and can pay for an outside evaluation if the school won’t. In the Los Angeles area, the professional exams can cost $5,000 to $10,000, providers there say.

Many poorer families can’t afford such testing even if they are aware of the process, said Byron Hulsey, headmaster of Woodberry Forest School, a Virginia boarding institution that has re-examined its procedures for granting special allowances to make the system more equitable.

Many of the special allowances are given for legitimate reasons. In Celebration, Fla., Caroline Arce started having trouble focusing and paying attention in middle school. Testing by a child psychologist showed she had anxiety and an attention-deficit disorder, said her mother, Kathryn Arce.

The family held off on a seeking a 504 designation at the public school she attends, thinking lifestyle changes such as more sleep might help. “We didn’t want to be people taking advantage of the system,” said Kathryn Arce.

When her daughter was still struggling in her sophomore year, she received a 504 designation, which gave her more time to take tests. Now a junior at Celebration High School, she also had extra time when she took the SAT in April. Even with that, she says, she didn’t finish the entire reading portion.

“In my mind it’s equal,” she said of the extra time she gets. “Because I have something that keeps me back.”

When Ezra Wallach took the ACT last year at New Trier High School in an affluent Chicago suburb, he noticed a large number of other students taking the test in separate rooms. He did some digging for his school newspaper and learned that a quarter of students were eligible to receive extra time or some other special accommodation.

He blames parents, doctors and the school for making this too easy. Mr. Wallach said the school “brags on its website” of having high ACT scores. “It’s to their benefit, so they don’t try to stop it,” he said.

New Trier administrators said their press release touting test scores was just one of many releases concerning student accomplishments. James Conroy, who heads college counseling at New Trier, said he believes there is abuse of the system in many affluent communities—“the word is out and you go to so-and-so” for evaluations—but said policing the abuse is up to the College Board and ACT because they approve extra-time requests.

The College Board said it has to balance the large number of students who really need a special accommodation against a small number who are exploiting the system.

The College Board used to do more checking, the organization said, but found that responding to special-accommodation requests was taking more than a month. The College Board said it relies on schools because they are closer to the medical professionals and teachers who know the students.

ACT said in a written statement its “primary concern is ensuring equal access to our assessments for our examinees with disabilities.” It said it is committed to providing “a fair process that is not burdensome for students, families or school staff to use to request accommodations that includes checks and safeguards to thwart bad actors from taking advantage.”

ACT said the share of students who test with special accommodations is in line with the share in the overall population who identify as a person with a disability.

Private high schools don’t use the 504 or Individualized Education Program designations, so there are no federal data to indicate how many of their students are eligible for extra time on college entrance exams. Private schools do, however, give special learning and test-taking accommodations to a significant share of their students.

In the San Francisco Bay area, that share is 25% to 30%, estimates John Brentar, a psychologist who tests students in the region.

At Trinity School, a private K-12 school in New York, nearly 17% of students receive some sort of learning accommodation, ranging form a scribe for a student with a broken hand to extended test-taking time for someone with a cognitive impairment. Shawna Zelnick, director of learning support, said formal accommodations generally come after other efforts at intervention and require an evaluation by a neuropsychologist, speech pathologist or other expert.

Oren Boxer, a clinical neuropsychologist in Pasadena and West Los Angeles, Calif., said he sometimes declines to write letters that families want supporting their requests for special allowances for their children at school, if his evaluation results don’t support this.

But “they’re going to find the people that can help their students get these accommodations,” Dr. Boxer said. “With enough money, you can get unscrupulous people who are willing to interpret something a different way.”

Dr. Boxer’s evaluations include two days of assessing a young person’s IQ, academic achievement, attention, motor skills and other matters. He said he includes ways to spot anyone trying to fake a negative result, such as a test that normally would be failed only by a person with significant cognitive impairment.

In Newton North, the school near Boston where about a third of students are eligible for extra time on college entrance exams, Dr. Fleishman, the superintendent, said virtually every time a student sees a private counselor for evaluation, he or she leaves with a recommendation for a special accommodation. Dr. Fleishman said Newton is working to reduce the number of students who get these.

A couple of years ago, administrators and teachers at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, Calif., noticed that students they had taught for years were coming in with doctors’ notes saying they had learning issues and needed extra time on college-entrance exams. The school pushed back.

“Parents want to do what’s in the best interest of their child and want to provide them with opportunities and support,” said Jeffrey Davis, head of the school, known as TVT. “They talk to their friends and their neighbors and realize their kids are getting extra support and that they might be able to get it, too.”

The diagnoses sometimes didn’t mesh with what the school and teachers knew about the students. Believing that what was going on wasn’t ethical, TVT last fall brought in an outside specialist to review each case.

“They are going back and looking at this thing and realizing that some of this stuff is baloney,” said Lee Weissman, a Jewish-studies teacher at the school.

Mr. Weissman said private schools face an inherent challenge in pushing back against parents demanding special allowances. “What we are selling is college admissions; that’s what parents are buying,” he said. “When they are getting accommodations, and that’s going to be helping to provide the product you’re selling, it’s hard.”


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