ENGAGED AND EMPOWERED

August 10th, 2021

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testing accommodations if you don’t have the testing agency’s preferred form of documentation or if your diagnosis is out of date.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.

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