Judge Challenges MCAT Rules

California ruling that state's broad definition of disabilities applies could provide more help to test takers with disabilities.
November 6, 2006

A California judge's ruling last week, ordering administrators of the Medical College Admission Test to provide special accommodations to students who meet the California standard for disability, could have national implications. The federal definition for disability uses the language “substantial limitation,” while California uses the term “limited,” which could broaden the number of students qualifying for accommodation on the standardized test required to apply to medical schools.

“The courts said that they must comply with California law,” said Roger Heller, a lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates, which brought the class action lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The plaintiffs had requested more time to take the test because of their disabilities, but were turned down by the testing agency, which determined that they did not meet federal guidelines for disability. Heller said that the California Legislature has set a broader definition of disability,  which provides greater protection, and that the plaintiffs met those standards.

Bob Burgoyne, a lawyer representing the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administers the MCAT, said that allowing separate standards for disability may call into question the integrity of the test. College administrators rely on the test as a standard measure of performance for students applying to medical school.

“We don’t want the usefulness of the MCAT to be undermined because some people are getting extra testing time,” he said. Burgoyne added that MCATs taken with an accommodation receive a flag, and that this may make it difficult for admissions officers to adequately weigh the meaning of the scores. Allowing a third standard -- disabled in California -- would only add to the confusion.

Heller said that while the assertion by the plaintiffss that they are trying to protect the quality of the test has validity, the case also revolves around money. “They don’t want to pay their proctors extra money,” he said.

Admissions officials acknowledged that the court's ruling, if upheld, might require them to change admissions processes. “We’ve got to dig a little deeper than what standardized tests might show,” said Doug Levy, a spokesman for the University of California at San Francisco's School of Medicine. Levy said that MCATs are only a part of admissions process and the ruling will not affect his campus.

Only MCATs and the Law School Admissions Test are flagged   when the test was taken with an accommodation. Other standardized tests stopped using the flagging -- amid lawsuits and threats of lawsuits from groups representing test takers with disabilities.

Steven Pereira, executive director of the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities, said that his group receives nearly 65,000 requests for accommodations every year. The College Board administers the SAT. Almost 80 percent of the requests are granted, the majority for people with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Burgoyne said that the California ruling has been stayed until AAMC officials have a chance to respond and that any final settlement will not be reached until 2007.

Heller said that he hopes the case will be resolved soon and that testing agencies will respond by applying the California standard nationwide.


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