August 10th, 2021

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.

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