One part of the scandal that has rocked the world of college admissions this week is the alleged faking of learning disabilities. Wealthy parents would coach their children into getting diagnosed as having a disability, qualifying for extra time or other accommodations when taking the SAT or ACT. Authorities have charged that this made it easier to cheat on the exams, sometimes by having answers changed, in testing centers controlled by those involved in the alleged scheme.
Those who advocate for students with learning disabilities say the scandal has the potential to undercut progress they have been making in gaining acceptance of the idea that learning disabilities are real and that some people with them need accommodations in testing situations.
The Learning Disabilities Association of America was one of the first groups to issue a statement about the indictments.
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"These actions hurt all individuals with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, by perpetuating the misperceptions that many students who obtain accommodations on college admissions do not have disabilities and that this abuse is widespread," said the statement. "Every year thousands of individuals with learning disabilities apply for and are appropriately granted accommodations, including extended time, for the college admissions exams such as the SAT and ACT. The testing entities’ well-established and rigorous process to apply for and obtain accommodations for individuals with disabilities protects the rights of those with disabilities. The small number of students implicated in the FBI investigation demonstrates that it is very rare for a student without a disability to obtain testing accommodations."
Still, many are worried that the reports of wealthy students faking a disability may discourage some people from seeking a diagnosis and make testing companies, schools and colleges more skeptical of such diagnoses.
"We are very concerned with how this scandal may impact students with disabilities on or transitioning to college campuses," said Kristie Orr, director of disability services at Texas A&M University and president of AHEAD: The Association on Higher Education and Disability.
Orr said that the systems in place by testing agencies are sound and were bypassed in the scandal by bribery, not because the process was flawed. But she added that "any time someone takes advantage of civil rights laws for illicit gain, there is real concern about backlash."
L. Scott Lissner, the Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator at Ohio State University, said he also was worried. He said that many testing organizations use a "say no when you can and yes when you have to" approach to testing accommodations. Lissner reviewed all of the documents in the current scandal and said it was important to remind people of the "limited and unique" scheme alleged -- one that involved fraud by people who did not have disabilities. He said testing agencies should focus on better oversight of employees rather than doubting those with disabilities.
A counselor in a private high school, who asked not to be identified, said she winced when reading about the learning-disability issue in the indictments. She said her school is very clear with students and parents about the rules, and that officials generally are skeptical if anyone asks for an accommodation at SAT/ACT time and that person has not sought accommodations earlier for school exams. Working with "genuinely qualified learning-style difference students is amazing and very rewarding," she said. "This is a threat to them."
Both the College Board and ACT have procedures in place for requesting accommodations, and both said that they are continuing to work with students who need accommodations. Students can't just say that they want extra time -- they must present evidence of a disability and of an appropriate accommodation.
A spokesman for the College Board, via email, said that "the vast majority of students who are approved for testing accommodations at their school … will have those same accommodations automatically approved for taking the SAT, PSAT 10, PSAT/NMSQT, SAT subject tests and AP exams. In some cases, we request further documentation, which is reviewed by qualified staff as well as by a panel of external experts. We are not aware of any prior incident where someone has attempted to take advantage of our accommodations policy to evade our test security systems."
One reason that advocates for people with disabilities are worried is that they had to fight repeatedly in court for the procedures that are now in place. The key issue isn't just the right for accommodations, but the right not to have those accommodations "flagged" when reported to a college. Many believe that such scores, when flagged, result in admissions officers writing off applicants, or discounting their scores.
The College Board agreed in 2002 to stop flagging scores, and did so as part of a settlement with a man with a physical disability. But at that time, most educators predicted the larger impact would be on those with learning disabilities. The Law School Admission Council agreed to stop flagging scores on the Law School Admission Test in 2012, settling a suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Even where testing agencies have agreed to stop flagging, lawsuits have charged that some questionnaires used by ACT effectively identified students as having disabilities. (ACT denied any wrongdoing.)
Legal rulings have largely backed the right of people with disabilities to obtain accommodations. A key ruling was by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in 2011, requiring the National Conference of Bar Examiners to allow a blind law school graduate to have accommodations when taking a bar exam. Federal law requires that a test be "administered so as to best ensure that, when the examination is administered to an individual with a disability that impairs sensory, manual or speaking skills, the examination results accurately reflect the individual's aptitude or achievement level or whatever other factor the examination purports to measure, rather than reflecting the individual's impaired sensory, manual or speaking skills."
At the same time as courts have backed the right to accommodations, reports have spread of wealthy individuals gaming the system by gaining diagnoses that a poor student might never get. Several studies and journalistic reports have found that wealthy students, on average, are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities than are low-income students.
A 2000 study by the California state auditor found that 1.2 percent of those graduating from high school were receiving extra time on the SAT. Compared to the state's population, those students were more likely to be white, more likely to come from a wealthy family and more likely to attend private schools than other students. Critics who look at such data don't question the reality of learning disabilities, but they see diagnosis and strategy around the issue -- some parents don't want the diagnosis recorded, except in ways that help their children -- as favoring families of means.
David Benjamin Gruenbaum of Ahead of the Class, a California-based test-prep company, said this week's indictments didn't surprise him because he has seen so many abuses of learning-disability diagnoses. It doesn't take an illegal bribe to get such a diagnosis, he said. "But the system is dominated by wealthy families who take advantage of this," he said.
Gruenbaum said that learning disabilities are real, and that students with them should get support. But he said he sees parents who "just go from doctor to doctor until they get a diagnosis." He noted that there are many different kinds of learning disabilities and that they require different approaches and accommodations. He recalled one parent who came in and told him, "I want you to work with my daughter. She gets extra time because she has a learning disability."
When Gruenbaum asked her about the nature of the disability, she didn't know. "She had paid some doctor and she couldn't remember."