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The Challenge of Accommodations for Standardized Exams

Eileen Antalek

by Eileen Antalek, Ed.D., IECA Member (Massachusetts)

I had an interesting client referred to me by a fellow independent educational consultant (IEC) for an evaluation in an effort to secure her accommodations for the SAT and AP exams. A lovely girl, full of promise. The testing indicated pretty significant deficits in her processing and academic fluency speed, and after the testing was completed and the form filled out by her guidance counselor, the College Board in their infinite wisdom refused her request for accommodations. I have had to endure an angry, anxious parent who wants the guidance counselor at the school fired, me fired, her IEC fired, the College Board to shrivel up and go away, etc., etc. This has prompted me to write to my fellow IECs, especially to address those of you who do not specialize in learning disabilities, to understand the challenges of the process in requesting exam accommodations, as well as to understand the challenges of dealing with these disappointments.

 When you take on a client who says they want accommodations for standardized exams like the SAT, first ask if the student has received accommodations at school. It is required that the accommodations be in place at least six months prior to the request. Thus, if I am dealing with a junior who has never been evaluated and/or who never received formal accommodations (as in this case), the family must understand that the College Board will likely refuse the request, no matter what the test results suggest, and that it is their right to do so (even if it is morally or ethically questionable). In this instance, I have appealed the decision based on the fact that no formal accommodations could be implemented as she attends a private school where there are no 504 Accommodation Plans or IEPs; that said, however, her teachers know her and have granted her extended time to complete her tests. Still, this does not guarantee anything if it is not backed up by her guidance counselor and/or her teachers (they are also appealing the College Board’s decision based on this and other facts).

Next, if the accommodations have been in place, please give the evaluator sufficient time to conduct the evaluation and produce the report. In this case, the parents made the appointment and wanted the written results within a few weeks, which is not feasible for my practice. I made this clear to the parent from the outset, yet they insisted I change my schedule to suit theirs as the time for the request for exam accommodations approached. What I could do was provide the outcomes from the testing and a quick summation for the guidance counselor with the diagnostic codes, for it is the guidance counselor who must complete the forms for the College Board. In this case, apparently the guidance counselor told the parent that the information did not need to go in immediately, and they wanted to wait for the full report (I do not know if this is true, but this is what the parent reported to me). All information for accommodation requests must be received by the College Board at least six weeks prior to the exam. So, have your clients work backwards. If s/he is taking the exam in December, the results have to be in to the College Board by mid-October, so that means I have to get the evaluation scheduled for (depending on the turn-around time for that office). . .You get the idea.

If the accommodations are refused by the College Board, they will state in the letter their reasons, but parents need to know there is an appeals process. The evaluator, therapist(s), guidance counselor, doctor(s) etc. can write additional information to clarify the position. It may be that additional evaluations might be needed (central auditory processing evaluation, etc.). But the important take away is that there are no guarantees!  I have had fewer than half a dozen initial refusals in all the years I have been doing this (not bad for 18+ years of work in the field), and in each case the appeals process worked, although not always as smoothly as I would like for the sake of my anxious families. I can recall in all these years only one case that did not end positively, and frankly I agreed that it was a “borderline” situation. I do not know if this case will end positively or not, as we are in the initial stage of the appeals process. But I reiterate to parents that there are no guarantees, and the IEC working with a family must also repeat this as many times as needed. I do not believe in giving up easily, and I write appeal letter(s) as needed, especially in a case where I agree the student needs accommodations. The parents need to understand a couple of things in the appeals process: first, since there are no guarantees, please do not insult anyone involved in your child’s situation by suggesting that they have not acted to the full extent of their professional capabilities (this parent insulted me, their IEC, the guidance counselor, the Board of Directors of the school, the College Board, you name it!); and second, the appeals process also takes time. If a parent wants to fight further, they will need to contact a special education attorney who specializes in these cases. It can be done, although it is costly and one must determine if there are cost benefits to such a battle (which I have seen as well, and it was a case where I agreed fully with the parent on a professional and a personal level).

In any event, disappointment must be handled sensitively. The student needs sympathy, encouragement, and knowledge, regardless of whether or not the student gets their test accommodations. First, remind them that the evaluation they underwent to request test accommodations is not part of the college application process. The evaluation results can help you find schools that will match the student’s learning style, and once they accept a college the student can use the evaluation to secure accommodations by presenting it to the liaison for students with learning needs. So, even if the evaluation did not help them with accommodation requests for the SAT, etc., it can have a more important role later on. Second, I remind all of my college applicants, not just my learning disabled students, that there are many colleges and universities, some of which are very competitive, that do not require standardized exams as part of the application process. The list is available at www.fairtest.org. I recently attended a luncheon with regional representatives from several colleges and universities from around the country, and some said that if a student does not take the exam, the admissions folks do not assume it is because they have learning issues. In fact, one of the representatives said she had spoken to students who have no difficulties with exams and who were at the top of their classes but who did not take the exams because they were in sympathy with their peers who struggle with them. That is, they were conscientious objectors!  So it is important for IECs to know that a “test optional” college is sometimes a wonderful choice for students who struggle. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this is only a test. This too shall pass, and there is much more to life and one’s future than worrying about one standardized exam result. The far more important thing in selecting a college is to find the right fit. If the college admissions department is focused on that test result as the main criterion for student selection, it is probably not the right fit for the student who struggles with or who does not like standardized exams—for whatever reasons.

17 Responses to The Challenge of Accommodations for Standardized Exams

  1. Alan Haas says:

    Terrific information, Eileen. Many thanks.

  2. Thank you Eileen – wonderful post – filled with good advice on how to navigate the accommodations process. I also appreciated your note to “… not insult anyone involved in your child’s situation by suggesting that they have not acted to the full extent of their professional capabilities.” It’s the same advice I give to parents and students when we work on a financial aid appeal! You get more flies with honey than with vinegar….

  3. Marilyn Morrison says:

    Thank you for this informative and insightful post, Eileen!

  4. Thanks for sharing not only great information but also what must have been a bad day or a series of bad days, which come to us all now and then. And it’s nice for us to be reminded that despite our best efforts, these things happen no matter how professionally we carry out our work. As Felice said above, you reminded us above, honey works better than vinegar. But it’s sometimes hard to summon up the honey.

  5. Joan Casey says:

    Thanks Eileen. I learned something this year of which I was not previously aware–that college board is skeptical about new testing and they are more likely to approve if there a period of 6 to 7 months has passed from the time of the testing to the request. My client initially denied was approved on appeal after 6 months.

    • Hi Joan, yes, it is true! They switched to this model several years ago as some parents seemed to be “gaming” the system by having their students evaluated. Personally, I am sure there might have been some of those cases, but more likely it became evident that with the pressure to get high scores, students who worked more slowly were being left in the dust, and those parents who had long thought their child “might” have some learning issue suddenly realized they really needed to find out! And, of course, we are more sophisticated in determining if someone does have learning issues. In any event, I am glad you won on appeal! Patience is often the key!

  6. Excellent information – thank you!

  7. Eileen, Thank you for a wonderfully written and insightful article! Rachelle

  8. Jeff Levy says:

    Eileen, this post is wonderful–filled with excellent guidance on the entire process. But even more importantly, you help us understand how to put testing accommodations into its proper context. Fantastic line about conscientious objectors that I may have to steal!

  9. Jenn Cohen says:

    I’ve worked this issue from a couple of angles. I did neuropsych testing for many years, as well as test prep for ADHD/LD students. Eileen’s information is right on target. I’d also add that a student who is denied accommodations, but plans to appeal, should NOT take the test until the appeal is complete. If the student achieves average scores on the test without accommodations, he/she is very unlikely to win the appeal. It’s one more reason to start the process early!

    • Great point, Jenn, and you are right on. Of course, for some of my students I suggest they DO take the test, knowing that they will not only not finish, but it will paint them in a way to further suggest how wrong the College Board was in denying them the accommodations to begin with!

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