August 10th, 2021

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 But people often find that their most recent psychoeducational evaluation is considered out-of-date.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.

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