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College Admissions Scandal Could Make It Harder To Get Testing Accommodations


We are still sorting through the implications of the college admissions scam that was designed to launch rich kids into top colleges. That story broke last week. And according to authorities, among the many strategies used was manipulating testing accommodations. These are accommodations intended for kids who need extra time to complete standardized tests. To explain more about this thread, we're joined now by Doug Belkin. He covers higher education for The Wall Street Journal. Welcome.

DOUG BELKIN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So can you first explain how a student taking a standardized test qualifies for an accommodation?

BELKIN: Yeah. If a student has some sort of disability or learning issue, then they can go to a doctor, and the doctor will write a note. They have - the doctor will do a series of tests to determine if they really have the disability that they claim or that they say. Or sometimes the doctor will find out that they have it. And then with that information, they'll send it up to the school, and the school will verify it. And then they send it to the SAT, the College Board or the ACT. And that would enable them to have extended time on their exam.

CHANG: But how severe does the disability or the learning issue have to be?

BELKIN: The big rise in this stuff has come from folks who are suffering from anxiety. There's a huge uptick, as you probably know, among adolescents who have anxiety and ADHD and these sorts of issues.

CHANG: Yeah.

BELKIN: And so, you know, how serious is anxiety is an open question. Some kids, it's terrifying. They're not able to sit and concentrate through an exam. For others, it may be less severe. But it's up to the doctor to determine if it's something that qualifies as a disability.

CHANG: And once you do qualify for an accommodation, what does that accommodation allow for?

BELKIN: So the accommodation can be used in school - how much time you get on a test in school. And then for the SAT or the ACT, it usually comes in two forms. You usually get double the amount of time or 50 percent more.

CHANG: What was so interesting in your reporting is that you noted a sharp uptick. You say that the number doubled from 2009 to 2016. Why are the numbers surging like that?

BELKIN: So at the base of this, in 2003, the College Board determined that they would no longer tell colleges that a test was taken with extended time. So no matter what your score is and no matter whether you have extended time or not, the schools don't know. So I think the combination of the schools not knowing and there being just more freaked-out kids around the country is pushing the numbers up and up and up every year.

CHANG: I'm sorry. You used the term 50...

BELKIN: So there's two labels essentially for someone...

CHANG: Yeah.

BELKIN: ...Who has a disability in school. There's a - an IEP, which is an independent educational plan, which is a much more sort of significant designation. And then there's a 504, which designates that a student also has some sort of disability, but it carries less weight.

CHANG: So it seems like getting an accommodation relies a lot on a family's initiative, like, their knowledge that such an accommodation opportunity even exists and their willingness to have the child diagnosed by a doctor, getting the doctor to write a note. I'm wondering - you know, I know that you've looked at how affluent public school districts compare to poorer districts. How have you seen those districts compare in how often accommodations are granted?

BELKIN: So the numbers are really dramatically different. In the wealthier school districts in the country, they may have 10 or 15 times as many accommodations - 504 accommodations - as poorer districts or as the national average.


BELKIN: So it's pretty much night and day.

CHANG: And why is that, do you think, that the contrast is so stark?

BELKIN: I think there's two things happening. The districts themselves have guidance counselors and psychologists on staff, and they may pick this stuff up. But also the parents understand what an accommodation can do. And they know how to go out and get them, and they're not afraid to do it if they believe their child either has some sort of learning disability or, you know, in a less moral sense, if they want them to have an accommodation because they think it will improve their score on the SAT.

The chief complaint with these things is that people are taking advantage of them who don't need them. And the people who do need them, the folks who are really disadvantaged, are not using them. And so the playing field is tilted. These things were built to try to level the playing field. But, you know, the claim is that they're being manipulated to make it even less fair.

CHANG: Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal, thank you very much for joining us.

BELKIN: Thanks very much for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, an IEP is incorrectly referred to as an independent educational plan. IEP actually stands for Individualized Education Program.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 21, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, an IEP is incorrectly referred to as an independent educational plan. IEP actually stands for Individualized Education Program.