Admissions tests hinder disabled students, US audit finds

With SAT and ACT already losing acceptance because of inequities, GAO details cost-related struggle of students to gain needed accommodations

July 14, 2022
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The main standardised college admissions tests pose significant difficulties, generally related to cost, for students who need disability-related accommodations, a US government auditor has found.

Tests such as the SAT and ACT allow accommodations such as extra time and preferential seating, but students are often challenged to produce the required documentation, the US Government Accountability Office says in a report to Congress.

Several of the main testing companies, the GAO says, described a chronic problem with student requests for accommodations “that do not sufficiently describe an individual’s disability and its impact,” making them difficult to evaluate.

Yet it is the students who suffer from the situation, the GAO says, especially those who can’t easily pay for updated professional evaluations of their conditions that are sometimes required by the testing companies. Those evaluation costs, as cited by disability advocacy organisations, range from $2,000 (£1,700) to $7,000, it says.

The GAO is the main investigative arm of Congress, and it prepares its studies at the request of lawmakers. Its findings on students needing disability-related accommodations follow a host of other concerns with the equity-related implications of standardised admissions tests – such as the costs of test preparation courses and of repeated retesting – that have led the overwhelming majority of US institutions to back away from their use at undergraduate level.

Nearly 80 per cent of four-year US colleges and universities did not require their applicants to use either of the two main undergraduate admissions tests – the SAT and ACT – for this autumn’s enrolment cycle, according to a tally by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

The centre is a leading critic of standardised tests in college admissions, and its executive director, Bob Schaeffer, called the GAO report more evidence of the inequities that such tests create and exacerbate.

Yet the report was also “extremely disappointing” in that it made no attempt to assess whether the verification procedures created by the testing companies were justified or applied consistently, Mr Schaeffer said. The GAO also could have done more to produce a breakdown of accommodation approval rates by socioeconomic status, he said.

Testing companies, in 2019 and 2020, granted accommodations to 86 per cent of the students who requested them, the GAO says in its report covering six test-making companies – those producing the SAT, ACT, four graduate-level exams, and the course-specific AP tests. But the numbers showed wide variation, from a 39 per cent approval rate at one testing company to 98 per cent at another, the auditor said. The GAO did not identify the companies by their rejection rates. It also said the calculated rates do not account for individuals who may be eligible but decide not to apply for an accommodation, or who quit early in the process without an actual rejection.

Altogether, about 1.1 million students took tests with accommodations, out of about 21 million total test takers at the companies, the GAO said. Nearly half of all accommodations granted were for instances of learning disabilities such as dyslexia and oral or written language disorders, and nearly a quarter were for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, it said.

The ACT, in a written response to questions about the GAO findings, said the challenges the auditor described “are longstanding, systemic, and, in some cases, have been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic”. The ACT said it responded to such challenges a year ago with a plan to “streamline its accommodations eligibility requirements".

Federal law enforcement believes it can do relatively little about the situation, according to the GAO. The auditor found that between 2017 and 2020, the US Department of Justice received fewer than 100 college admissions testing-related complaints of violations of the federal law that protects people with disabilities. It pursued and closed only four of them, with all of those ended “due to a lack of necessary information”, the GAO says.

The Justice Department warns on its website that it has limited resources to pursue such matters, it noted.

One of the most high-profile such cases occurred a decade ago, when the Justice Department intervened on behalf of California state officials arguing that the main law school entrance examination, the LSAC, routinely denied accommodations for people with documented disabilities.

The test’s owner, the Law School Admission Council, accepted a settlement in 2014. It was forced into a further settlement in 2018 after it was found to be violating the 2014 terms through steps that included flagging the LSAT scores of students who sought accommodations on testing times.

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