Californians with learning disabilities may not use state law to seek extra time when taking the Medical College Admission Test, and must rely on the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, a California appeals court ruled last week. 
The ruling reverses a lower court’s decision that the plaintiffs in the case could seek extra time on the MCAT based on California law. Because the California law’s standards for disability are notably different from the federal law, the lower court decision was strenuously opposed by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which runs the MCAT. Medical school officials had said that if MCAT time extensions were given under one standard in California and under another standard elsewhere, the fairness of the test -- which is crucial for medical school admissions -- could be compromised.
The California appeals court made its ruling based not so much on issues of fairness to those with disabilities, but on its interpretation of California’s Unruh Act, a broad anti-discrimination statute. While that law bars bias on the basis of disability, among other factors, the statute also says that it does not apply in cases where rules and procedures are “applicable alike” to all people regardless of their disability or medical condition.
The court noted that the California Supreme Court has ruled that actions that have a “disparate impact” on some groups but that are not explicitly discriminatory are not covered by the Unruh Act. The appeals court then applied this principle to the MCAT case and the medical colleges’ standards on times for various sections of the test. “These standards are neutral and extend to all applicants regardless of their membership in a particular group,” the court decision said. As a result, the plaintiffs in the case shouldn’t have sued under the California law, the judges ruled.
The four plaintiffs in the case sued the AAMC in 2004. The four have either reading-related learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and they wanted the medical college group to grant them extra time on certain portions of the MCAT. While some people who take the MCAT have won the right to extra time by seeking accommodations under the ADA, the federal requirement for disability is more difficult to meet than the California law.
The relevant ADA language says that people may seek accommodations when their condition “substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” Under the California law, a disability is something that “limits a major life activity.” That lower standard would have made it easier for these four plaintiffs and many others to seek extra time or other accommodations on the MCAT.
Robert Burgoyne, the lawyer for the AAMC in the case, said that the medical college group was pleased with the appeals court's decision, and that the lower court's ruling could have hurt the validity of test scores. "Our biggest concern was insuring that all MCAT applicants were subject to the same set of rules when it came to asking for accommodations," he said. He added that while there are guidelines for determining under ADA whether someone is entitled to extra time, there isn't a clear system under California law. "We didn't know what the standards were," he said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs could not be reached this weekend.
While the decision was emphatic that the California law didn’t give these test takers the right to extra time, it also said that they might be able to demonstrate a case under the ADA. Further, the decision noted that there are arguments on both sides of the question about time limits for admissions tests.
“Individuals who have difficulty reading as a result of their disability may, nonetheless, possess superior intelligence and reasoning skills, The accommodation of applicants with learning and reading-related disabilities on a standardized test is designed to level the playing field, not to give those individuals an advantage,” the decision said.
It went on: “Nonetheless, accommodating such disabilities creates an inherent tension between the various interests at stake. On the one hand, when a test is not designed to measure reading speed, time limits can compromise its ability to accurately measure the skills and knowledge of applicants with such disabilities. In such cases, applicants may possess the ability to solve a particular problem, but be unable to do so because the time constraint placed by the testing agency does not allow them sufficient time to decode the question asked. On the other hand, the value of standardized tests lies in the ability to compare the relative scores of different applicants. If accommodations alter what is being tested, the comparability of scores may be compromised and the person receiving the accommodations may receive a benefit not given to a person taking the test under standard conditions.”