Is the New SAT Policy for Receiving Accommodations Fair?

I’ve been giving this issue a lot of thought lately, especially in light of the recent decision by the College Board to ease its process for obtaining accommodations. My fear – Are we opening up the system to even more abuse? – and on the other side – How do we “accommodate” for learning differences in the population in an education system that favors students who learn in a particular fashion? As one young lady I know who did not have an IEP or 504 once said, “I would do better on my SATs if I had extra time, too.”

So I started to sift through the literature, wondering if we really were leveling the playing field. First I came across an article that ran in the New York Times back in 2002, in which a Federal District Court judge “ruled that students with learning disabilities had the right to special treatment, through different assessment methods or accommodations like the use of a calculator or the chance to have test questions read aloud. It was the first time a state had been ordered to adjust the conditions for its graduation exams for students with learning disabilities, most of whom are dyslexics with reading problems.”… “With more than 12 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren now identified as disabled — some with physical problems, but most with learning disabilities — concern is growing that some students say they have learning disabilities just to win easier testing conditions.”

Then I found this statement in an article by Lynn O’Shaughnessy in 2011 in which she quoted another expert:
“‘Colleges are looking for diversity…and having a learning disability represents a form of diversity. Colleges will often look at an applicant’s grades and test scores in a new light if presented with evidence of a learning disability. A learning disability may help put lower grades, class rankings, or standardized test scores in context.'”

Hmm. That makes sense for some colleges. But other colleges may not be so forgiving. And colleges can’t ask a student if he or she has a learning difference (I prefer that term to disability), so unless a student discloses, the colleges will never know. Many counselors typically counsel students not to mention their differences for fear that this will give colleges reason, although probably never stated, to deny admission. Colleges have to be more supportive, and support can cost money, time and effort, so this type of diversity may not be ideal for some colleges.

But is it a bad thing to be rejected from a college that doesn’t want you – or, better yet, that feels that it doesn’t have the services in place to support you? It’s a good idea to know in advance if a school will be supportive – and whether you will be able to handle the workload and requirements BEFORE applying. If it’s the wrong school for you, it’s advantageous to find that out beforehand and not apply than to flounder once you get there. Considering the fact that there are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States, there will be other options.

Bottom line, whether you choose to disclose or not (and I think that is a case by case decision), is to do your research. I hate to put the onus on students and families, but it really is a good idea to research college support services and to talk to the professionals in the disability resource offices before applying. They tend to be friendly folk. Ask the tough questions: Does the office have experience working with students who have your learning difference? What services are provided – and do they dovetail with your learning difference and needs? Does the office have sufficient staff? What are the graduation rates of students with learning differences? And a gauge I usually use is: How responsive has the office been to talking to me, either in person or on the phone? If you get the run around, as I did last spring on one campus, perhaps that office is telling you something.