ACT Announces New Process for Accommodations: How Will Students with Disabilities Benefit?

On July 21, 2021, ACT. announced that it is adopting an easier process for implementing accommodations for those with disabilities by transferring accommodations granted in IEPs and 504 plans directly to its eponymous test starting in the 2021-2022 school year. This is important news and a long-needed change. How big of a win is this for students with disabilities? First, we need some context. In 2018 Inside Higher Ed reported the ACT was sued for selling sensitive disability information to colleges and scholarship agencies in order to get an edge on its competitor, the College Board, which administers the SAT. Despite denying wrongdoing the ACT agreed to stop including disability information in their sales in 2018 but the case would not be resolved until October 2020. The class action lawsuit was filed with U.S. District Court in Los Angeles which resulted in ACT agreeing to pay $16 million dollars to students in California “only to avoid the litigation cost and uncertainty of prolonged litigation.” as stated in a follow up article in Inside Higher Ed in October 2020. ACT is under pressure to appease groups that are eager to reform their system of granting accommodations and using student data. Given this context some might view the recent  announcement by the ACT as a move to appease watchdogs and students that pose a legal threat and stifle the momentum of future cases with the ground for successful litigation. 

As reported by the media, ACT was fined by the courts for their practice of selling private disability data to colleges and universities. This point is important because students who took the ACT argued that their private disability information was shared without their knowledge and prevented them from admission to colleges and universities. The court found this practice a violation of the ADA. Historically, testing agencies often enforced unclear confidentiality practices as they related to accommodations–until they were required to by law (Inside Higher Ed. 2018). Many students worry that by having their private disability information sold to colleges and universities, it would be used to flag and deny people with disabilities college admission, financial aid awards, and scholarships. This is institutional ableism. 

The move to make the accommodation process smoother is welcomed but is something that should already be in place. The federal government outlines the steps and procedures, in alignment with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that testing agencies such as ACT should be using in their accommodation decisions. Removing barriers to receiving testing accommodations is a critical improvement, but people with disabilities have grown to mistrust the process, testing agencies, and system enough to avoid using or it or feeling exploited when they do. With the new accommodation processes coming into place schools will need to continue to be mindful in crafting IEPs and 504 plans to clearly specify accommodations that apply to testing situations. Those without an IEP or 504 plan can still apply for accommodations under the protection granted by the ADA. A lingering question I, and many other young adults, have is whether the new uniform process for accommodations could make it harder for those without IEPs or 504 plans to obtain testing accommodations. As a community we will have to be diligent in ensuring students have equitable access to these important accommodations.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council member, Kayla Queen.

Current Testing Trends

High-stakes tests in the form of entrance exams have been commonplace for the majority of prospective college students for more than 60 years. The initial purpose of these exams, such as the ACT (first introduced in 1959), was to standardize the application process and increase access to higher education. But these tests now are often the source of decreased access. 

In recent years, we have seen more entities acknowledge that these tests are biased, favoring privileged students and creating even more disadvantages for those with disabilities and lower socioeconomic power. Some academic institutions have responded to this by becoming test-optional or even omitting these exams altogether. Additionally, testing initiatives have been altered or eliminated both temporarily and permanently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And a recent settlement in California further secured the trajectory of college admissions away from standardized entrance exams, calling for the elimination of the SAT and the ACT in the UC System admissions process.

Zachary Goldberg, executive director of media relations and external communications at The College Board, admitted weaknesses in the test when speaking of socioeconomically disadvantaged school districts. He stated that there are “performance differences across groups of students [that] reflect an unequal K–12 system.”

The College Board suggests that college admissions offices be cognizant of demographic discrepancies — but fails to mention measures The College Board itself could take to develop equitable assessments. Instead, testing agencies seek to create markets and capitalize on earning potential, which sometimes leads to additional points of inequitable access. For example, in addition to profit made directly from the test, testing agencies have introduced costly supplemental test preparation products. This creates even less equality of access between those who can and cannot afford such products. These products also fail to resolve the fundamental issues facing test takers with learning disabilities, while simultaneously inflating the competition. The personal interest testing agencies have is problematic in the context of education.  

While some institutions are easing off tests such as the SAT and ACT, others — including half of the top 100 colleges and universities — have remained vested in test scores and gain prestige from statistics about their students’ scores. This creates a cycle: competition for high test scores is fueled, resulting in increased standards for admission to elite schools, followed by more competition and more increased standards. Data collected through schools using the Common Application, an application service that allows students to use the same application for multiple schools, found that while test score submissions dropped overall during 2020, rates of test score submission remained higher at selective schools than at less selective schools. And the rate of submission remained higher overall for Asian and white students, who generally score higher on these exams. 

Given all of these barriers, frequently marginalized groups — including those with learning disabilities — are likely to score lower on standardized assessments. This reduces their ability to gain access to these selective schools. For instance, selective large and small private schools and selective large public schools have the highest rate for score submission, with selective large private schools having the highest incidences of score submission overall. However, it is important to note that overall score submission has declined for almost every category of school between 2019 and 2020. 

While test scores are helpful in indicating which students have benefits that will help them do well, they fail to provide fair consideration for other top minds. Test scores may indicate that a prospective student is smart, wealthy, and neurotypical, but GPA still surpasses test scores as the best indicator of future academic success. At institutions where both test scores and GPA are used, GPA is given less weight. The knowledge and skills of students with learning disabilities, more accurately represented by their GPAs than by their test scores, are being undervalued by these schools. 
Educational institutions need to empower all students, not just the ones they are most accustomed to educating. Higher education is intended to elevate one’s thinking and advance one’s abilities, important factors in social mobility that all should have. Students with learning disabilities can and do excel beyond what test results indicate. They are ready to capitalize on educational opportunities if given a fair chance.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council member, Kayla Queen.

Seeking Accommodations: Rachelle’s Experience

Rachelle is an exceptionally bright student seeking admission to a Ph.D. program. She is a high achiever and overwhelmed by the prospect of having to compromise her goals if she underperforms on a standardized test. She is driven to do everything in her power to prepare well for standardized entrance exams, the most recent one being the GRE. For Rachelle, this entails more than being a good student and doing run-of-the-mill test prep. She must work for fair treatment — to which she is entitled under the law. Due to Rachelle’s dyslexia, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers her legal protection. The ADA specifies that tests need to offer accommodations to reflect the test taker’s ability, not their disability. For Rachelle, this includes addressing differences that become issues when she takes standardized tests, such as taking more time to complete tasks or having issues with spelling that could drag down her score. Regarding her decision to pursue accommodations, Rachelle said, “I needed to. I knew I would never finish the exam within the time limit.”

For Rachelle, getting accommodations on a standardized test has involved the extra burden of navigating the online application, undergoing reassessment — a time-consuming endeavor that can cost upwards of $500 — and providing supplemental documentation. The additional barriers of the testing accommodation process can be a source of pressure and feelings of being misunderstood. 

Rachelle took it upon herself to make the best case she could for her request when applying for accommodations for the GRE. “I collected information for a month,” she said, “and turned in an inch-thick stack of papers as evidence of my disability and accommodation needs, waited eight weeks to hear back, and then still got denied some of the needed accommodations I requested.”

Her evidence of needs consisted of letters from grade school teachers and college professors, self-written letters testifying of her learning disability, records from standardized tests from the time of her diagnosis in second grade and onwards, a record of the performance differences she experienced in middle school when she lost accommodations, the IEP she had in grade school, documentation of her university accommodations, a recent reevaluation, and proof of accommodations on previous high-stakes tests such as the AP exams and the ACT.

In accordance with the ADA and our current knowledge of the nature of learning disabilities, her history of dyslexia should have been proof enough for her to receive the accommodations she is permitted under law. Yet she was still denied some of the needed accommodations — even accommodations she had been granted on similar tests. 

For Rachelle, the experience of seeking accommodations was invalidating: She was put in a position of having to prove her disabilities when, according to the ADA, the documented history of her diagnosis and struggles since early elementary school should have been proof enough. Rachelle has been denied the following accommodations by testing agencies: taking the exam across multiple days (GRE) and using spell-check (both the ACT and GRE), while using spell-check was granted on her AP test. Difficulty with spelling has long been a hallmark of dyslexia and is not something that should be held against someone with dyslexia when measuring their potential and other abilities. The need for multiple test days is not one that should be dismissed either. Individuals who take longer to complete a task are more likely to face a level of fatigue not encountered by their peers. Stretching tests over multiple days is a reasonable measure that can be provided for those with learning and attention differences. 

Seeking accommodations can be emotionally draining, time-consuming, and a financial burden. While individuals with learning disabilities often overcome obstacles to meet their goals, they deserve the same opportunities that their peers enjoy. Testing agencies need to be held accountable for following the ADA and other civil rights laws that ensure the rights of people with disabilities. The process for requesting accommodations needs to be streamlined. Accommodations should be granted quickly and appropriately. And exams should be created to assess knowledge that can be demonstrated in multiple ways.

While students, parents, and advocates can work together to build a strong case for a student’s needed testing accommodations, more action may be needed. The federal government can hold testing agencies accountable, and students can seek to have requirements waived. As individuals with learning disabilities, we face inequitable barriers to demonstrating our knowledge and skills on these problematic high-stakes assessments.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council Member, Kayla Queen.

Seeking Accommodations: Taylor’s Experience

Taylor is an aspiring teacher who is completing her student teaching. Before starting her student teaching, she had to consider how she was going to pass the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL) with her learning disability. For Taylor, becoming an educator hinges on receiving a passing score on the MTEL. In her everyday life, Taylor has adopted strategies and tools and is competent in the tested subject areas of the MTEL. But when she is being tested under restricted resources and with limited time, her learning disability becomes a barrier.

The request process for alternative test arrangements for the MTEL requires both the submission of a diagnostic test and a signed note that includes the recommended accommodations “by a qualified professional whose license or credentials are appropriate to diagnose the condition” or verified by the “Office of Disability Services at the candidate’s college or university [or the] Department of Vocational Rehabilitation office in the candidate’s state of residency.” The process also outlines that these documents must not be older than five years or predate high school.

Taylor’s initial evaluation did not meet these specifications. It was not until she completed and submitted a new evaluation by a psychologist that she was approved by the testing agency to receive accommodations on the test. For Taylor, these accommodations included a four-function calculator and a testing window of time and a half. But her journey to getting these accommodations involved going through the alternative test arrangement process, spending time locating a provider who is qualified to perform adult learning disability evaluations without a year-plus waitlist, scheduling and waiting for an appointment, traveling from her residence in a rural part of the state, taking the lengthy evaluation itself, and waiting for the results. 

Once accommodations are approved, applying them to one’s test slot can be tricky. Students with learning disabilities like Taylor are likely to experience delays in test registration, as they are encouraged to wait until documentation is approved to register for a test date with their accommodations properly applied. Since it took significant time to get everything submitted, approved, and properly applied, Taylor initially took the first portion of the test, Communication and Literacy Skills, without accommodations.

For the MTEL, test takers are responsible for navigating an alternative scheduling process via email or phone, in which they must self-identify as someone approved for alternative test arrangements. If there is any miscommunication on this point, MTEL indicates that by default test takers will be scheduled without accommodations. Thus individuals with learning disabilities have the additional concern of verifying that everything is properly set up. A complication like this would have been particularly stressful for someone like Taylor, who traveled across the state the day of her test and would have been in a very difficult position if the test had not been arranged correctly.

Individuals with learning disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which issues requirements for entities that administer tests like the MTEL. Under the parameters described by the ADA: “Failure by a testing entity to act in a timely manner, coupled with seeking unnecessary documentation, could result in such an extended delay that it constitutes a denial of equal opportunity or equal treatment in an examination setting for persons with disabilities.” Taylor did not receive equal opportunity at the level she should have. The documentation she initially submitted should have been given more consideration. And she should have been given the opportunity to provide supplemental documentation from her education history under the ADA. The ADA guarantees that “a testing entity must respond in a timely manner to requests for testing accommodations so as to ensure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.” If this had been the case, Taylor would have been approved for her initial request in time for the Communication and Literacy Skills test that she initially took without accommodations, as, according to the ADA, “an absence of previous formal testing accommodations does not preclude a candidate from receiving testing accommodations.”

Grade school students can benefit from having more teachers with learning disabilities. But unless the requirements outlined by the ADA are upheld, future educators like Taylor may continue to face barriers to licensure.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council Member, Kayla Queen.

Obstacles in High-Stakes Tests for Those With Learning Disabilities

A lot of people have misconceptions about what it means to have learning disabilities and attention issues, thinking that people with these challenges cannot thrive academically or professionally. But by definition, people with LDs have average or above-average intelligence. The barriers they face when taking entrance and professional exams are nothing to do with academic or professional ability. 

People with learning disabilities think and function in ways that match their unique strengths and weaknesses. But when they’re required to perform according to the predominant way of thinking and doing, such as standardized tests, their abilities can’t shine. Accommodations make it possible for them to show their skills and knowledge in ways that work for them. But the process of receiving accommodations can be an obstacle.

One of the most common issues is providing documentation of a learning or attention issue. Testing agencies such as The College Board prefer documentation in the form of a psychoeducational evaluation. But people often find that their most recent psychoeducational evaluation is considered out-of-date. Sometimes, these evaluations are written with an “expiration date” despite the unchanging nature of learning and attention differences. Students in areas with shortages of qualified evaluators have received accommodations without formal testing, and therefore don’t have a psychoeducational evaluation. For example, private schools are more likely to accommodate their students without formal documentation. Twice-exceptional students also often receive accommodations without evaluation — and they may not want to jeopardize their current school accommodations by being evaluated. Many would rather take their chances with entrance and professional exams.

Evaluations may be cost-prohibitive, especially for those of lower socioeconomic status. Those who live in poorer school districts are disproportionately affected, as students in these districts rely on public schools for identification and documentation. Yet these school districts face low budgets, understaffing, and lack of training in identifying those with a learning disability. This may mean that students who should have been able to receive a free diagnosis, documentation, and support through their school face barrier upon barrier. And as a history of past accommodations is a key component for making a strong case when requesting testing accommodations, having no such documentation makes it harder to get testing accommodations.

Time constraints can be a frustrating issue, too. The length of time needed for the evaluation process (from getting an evaluation appointment through receiving and submitting the results), limited test dates, and limited slots for those in need of accommodations on specific test dates all add to the problem. Those who seek accommodations must meet the deadline for requests and present documentation by the deadline for their desired test date, which can be a month to two months before the test. The College Board indicates that it then takes around seven weeks to approve or deny a request.

There also is a lack of clarity about what accommodations are available, what requests are often accepted, what metrics are used in determining the need for accommodation, and what will happen if a request does not go as planned. For example, The College Board website states that they will consider all reasonable accommodations. What is a “reasonable accommodation” is a contested point. So applicants start strategizing.

Some applicants decide that they’ll just apply to test-optional schools and avoid the whole issue. Those who want to apply to a school that requires a test, may request less than what they really need, hoping to secure some degree of accommodation approval and avoid interference with their timeline. And others approach test accommodations with the mindset of accumulating all the accommodations they can get, figuring it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

However, since requests are approved and denied on an individual basis at the discretion of the test provider, there is little (other than ADA guidelines) to enforce equity, and even less for test takers to base their strategy on. With no promises that an accommodation will be granted or necessarily be an accommodation that is helpful, many students decide to skip this time-consuming process and use their time and energy in different ways. If additional studying isn’t enough to compensate for challenges in test taking, some may end up reconsidering their goals. In other cases, extra study may enable a test taker to get a pretty good score without accommodations, but this student will still be at a disadvantage regarding scholarships, fellowships, and other opportunities where these scores are considered. And many students will experience steeper effects of perpetual marginalizations. 

Another issue is the viability of the test themselves. GPA is a better predictor of college success than test scores. It could be that GPA is a better measure of work ethic. And teachers have a certain degree of freedom to implement assessments that reflect the skills, abilities, and knowledge of their students.

While entrance exams were created to be an objective measure of aptitude, some bias still remains. Students who do not fit the profile of traditional college students are not served well if we fail to ask “How has our understanding of these tests changed over time?” and “What changes need to be made now to fit our improved understanding?” With privilege embodied and perpetuated in these tests, social stratification persists. Higher education and its resulting civic engagement have been made less attainable for some of those who could benefit from it the most: those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with learning disabilities or other disabilities.

While initiatives to make these tests more equitable are vital to the needs of those traditionally marginalized, they don’t fully address the implicit bias these tests embody. If new versions are not specifically designed to tease out the triumphs and potential of specific populations, the meaning of entrance exams will remain lost.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council Member, Kayla Queen.

Colleges & Careers: Deciding to Opt In or Out of High-Stakes Tests

Opting In to High-Stakes Tests

For prospective students and professionals who want to pursue certain degrees and careers, high-stakes tests will often be necessary. These may include admission exams such as the SAT and ACT for undergrads, and tests like the MCAT or GRE for those applying to graduate school. Licensure exams, such as the ASWB exam to become a licensed social worker or the bar exam to become a lawyer, are examples of career-specific exams. 

For those with a learning disability or another disability, testing accommodations are available. Accommodations that can be requested often include distraction-free rooms, extra time, assistive readers, use of a calculator, and more. The use of accommodations is kept confidential, so colleges and employers will not know if someone has a learning disability or used testing accommodations unless the individual discloses it. 

The process for being approved for testing accommodations includes submitting the online application for accommodations (with documentation supporting the requested accommodations), awaiting review, and, if approved, following the instructions for scheduling a test date. This process can take a while, so it’s best to have the application for accommodations completed two to six months before the desired test date. The testing agency may grant all, some, or none of the requested accommodations. Then the test taker can decide whether to provide supplemental documentation or appeal the decision. 

Don’t be deterred from seeking testing accommodations if you don’t have the testing agency’s preferred form of documentation or if your diagnosis is out of date. Individuals with learning disabilities are protected by law under ADA, which specifies that someone who illustrates a history of struggles characteristic of a learning disability and who has received informal accommodations should be eligible. To build a strong case for yourself, review the ADA guidelines on high-stakes testing. Then do your best to match what you have with what the testing agency wants. Be mindful to craft your documentation to illustrate your need specifically to the accommodations you’re requesting.

Opting Out of High-Stakes Tests

If you’re not sold on the idea of attending an institution that requires an exam such as the SAT or ACT, test-optional colleges and universities may be a better fit. Test-optional schools give applicants a choice about whether to submit test scores. (There are even some schools that don’t accept test scores at all.) About half of the top 100 liberal arts colleges are test-optional. So while options may be more limited, you can still pursue admission to many of the most prestigious schools.  

Although this is not as common, some universities will waive the requirement for admissions testing, along with foreign language requirements, for those with a learning disability.

If you’re interested in a niche program offered at a school that requires test scores, consider approaching the school directly and negotiating an alternative. While universities tend to be sticklers about how they do things, you may end up pleasantly surprised. Either way, the response you receive will be a telltale sign of what the program’s climate is like for those with disabilities. 

As for careers, if you plan on being competitive in a field with licensure exams, gaining licensure will give you fuller access to the jobs you want. If you’re after a career that is more open-ended, you can build it if you prepare to chart some open water. In The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, Brock Eide and Fernette Eide concluded that those with learning disabilities are often overrepresented in fields such as entrepreneurship. Their career growth does not become stunted when roles with heavy amounts of executive functioning are part of the promotional ladder, such as it is with middle management positions. Many careers struggle to be disability-friendly as there are often a set of protocols and assumptions about patience and competency.

Whatever direction you decide to go with your education and your career, there will be times of uncertainty and pivot points along the way. Consider all your options, consider where you can add value, and be fairly valued and compensated in return. Explore what job settings work with and against your needs and strengths. There is not a school or a career type that is better, only those that are better for you.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council member, Kayla Queen.