Accommodations for Standardized Tests--What You Need to Know about Psychological Testing to Document a Disability
There is such confusion and stress about applying for accommodations during “high stakes” tests such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT. For some students, accommodations such as extended time or frequent breaks during testing gives them a better chance of showing their true potential. As a clinical psychologist, I frequently receive calls from parents or young adults asking what they need to do to arrange for accommodations when they take standardized tests. Unfortunately, most parents, students and even some psychologists are not familiar with the process. Common mistakes can jeopardize the student's chances of being granted accommodations. It is critical to do your research well in advance. This blog was written to help you plan ahead to document a disability and request accommodations.
The right to reasonable accommodations is granted to people who have disabilities that impair their ability to perform major life task (such as learning, reading, speaking, working). The law that guides who gets accommodations under what circumstances is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504. This section of the law protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. Students with disabilities may receive special education services during the K-12 years as delineated in a “504 Plan.” A student with a documented disability has the right to reasonable accommodations. The key word here is 'reasonable.' The word 'reasonable' does not mean that the testing situation has to be perfect, only that testing companies take reasonable steps to 'level the playing field' so that students with disabilities can compete with their peers. Accommodations may include special privileges to help minimize the impact of a person's disability. For example, a person with diabetes may take breaks to check blood sugar or eat. A person who can not write well with a pencil may dictate responses or use an alternative interface. A person with dyslexia may take his test untimed or with 50% extra time.
There have been recent changes to ADA that will make it easier to document a disability. The changes also broaden how many people may qualify for accommodations. Under the revised ADA, people may have accommodations even when their disability is managed with a “mitigating measure”. A “mitigating measure” refers to medication or other helpful device that the person uses to cope with his disability. For example, a student with diabetes can still have accommodations, even though insulin regulates her blood sugar. It can also mean that a student with ADHD is still entitled to accommodations when taking their stimulant medication. The new changes in the law also protect people with disabilities that are do not impact their lives all the time. For example, a person with epilepsy could be entitled to accommodations even if he is not actually have a seizure during the testing.
Finally, the law has been changed to recognize people's difficulties across a broader range of 'life activities.' These activities may include learning, self-care, writing, or working. The student's performance can now to be compared to what would be expected for a person as compared to their peers, not only the general population. This means that the student's need for accommodations can be compared to the other people in their same situation, such as other students applying to graduate school. All of these changes mean that more people with disabilities could be eligible for accommodations. Companies who produce and administer standardized tests must comply with the provisions of ADA.
Though the changes in the ADA law are good news for people with disabilities, it is very important to understand the process to avoid being denied. There is a natural tension between students and the publishers of standardized tests. Parents and students want to get the best scores possible. Testing companies want to make sure the scores they produce continue to be useful predictors of how a student will perform in the higher education setting. Testing companies naturally want to maintain standard procedures as much as possible. Standard procedures ensure fairness as well as the validity of the scores they produce. As a result, they carefully study all applications for accommodations. Its not that testing companies are 'bad guys' who want to deny students at all costs; they provide a service and must protect their ability to do so as well as they can.
So how do parents and students go about getting accommodations? The first thing to do is to PLAN AHEAD. Make sure that the student has a DOCUMENTED record of receiving, using, and benefiting from accommodations in the educational setting well before the test. Any accommodations that the student will request from the testing service should already be a documented aspect of that student's educational program (e.g. 504 plan or IEP). Many parents make the mistake of letting their high school students 'get by' with informal accommodations granted by helpful teachers. For example, Ms. Smith may let Jay turn in his work late, and finish tests during lunch because she knows he will do well if given more time. Some students beg their parents to let them avoid a 504 plan or IEP so they will not have to feel different from their peers. Of course, many parents give in and do things like spend hours helping with homework or hiring tutors to help the student along. This will hurt the student when she then applies for accommodations from a testing company, because there is no documentation of what the student had to do differently from her peers in order to succeed. Without a formal 504 plan, IEP, Disability Support Services record from a college, or private school education plan, there is no documented history of a need for accommodations. If the student has been successful without accommodations for all of his educational, why should the testing company believe that he suddenly needs them a month or two prior to a 'high stakes' test?
Parents and students also make the mistake of calling to schedule a psychological evaluation a few weeks before the test date. Waiting until the last minute can be a disaster. Companies like the Educational Testing Service review thousands of applications for disability accommodations. They specify on their websites how much time they need in advance to review each student's case. Do not miss their deadlines. Also consider that during peak times of year, particularly January through April, a psychologist may be booked out for months. After the testing, some psychologists and doctors may take at least four weeks or more to produce your report. Families must make their testing appointment months in advance of the application deadline to ensure having results on time.
Parents and students also make the mistake of selecting the wrong person to do the testing. Some clinicians who do psychological testing are not familiar with the law or with the guidelines of the testing companies. As an active member of my state psychological association, I often see listserv questions come up between psychologists who are confused about how to test to document disabilities for high stakes testing. Additionally, not all professionals who conduct evaluations know much about the provisions of ADA and IDEA (the laws that protect students with disabilities). They may have excellent clinical skills, but no training in how to advocate for a student's rights in a letter or report. Last but not least, before you schedule your testing, make sure that the psychologist or educational diagnostician has the credentials the testing company requires.This information is on the testing services websites.
Aside from credentials, it is critical to ask if the evaluator has the experience, the very latest versions of all tests, and up-to-date training to make sure the testing is done properly. The last thing anyone wants is to pay for an expensive psychological evaluation only to learn that the evaluator was not well prepared to document a disability for 'high stakes testing.' Before calling the psychologist, parents and students must visit the websites of each testing company to learn exactly what to ask for in an evaluation. For example, each test publisher has specific requirements about what tests they accept as documentation and whether they require the student to take his medication as usual ( some testing companies require testing be done with the student taking his medication as he does on school day, even though doing so may make it harder for the psychologist to understand the nature of the student's impairments).
Finally, there are research data to indicate that quite a few students who request testing for accommodations exaggerate or even fake problems. So aside from giving a sermon about why this is wrong (if you can read this, you already know), its a mistake to try it. If a student tries to exaggerate a disability, he may end up skewing the results to look like he is of low intelligence or severely impaired. Not a great idea if the student plans to use the report to advocate for herself in college or graduate school. The student may also happen to be tested by a psychologist who uses tools designed to detect malingering or detect unusual response patterns. Remember, psychologists are behavior specialists, and will be very skeptical if a very smart, successful student comes in and earns unexpectedly low scores (most would probably refer that student for a serious neurological work-up). I certainly don't claim that we can't be fooled, but if a student corrupts the data of a psychological evaluation, then that very expensive document becomes pretty worthless.
To learn more about ADA and IDEA, please check these websites:
The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities www.nichy.org
The Council for Exceptional Children www.cec.sped.org
and of course, check the website of the publisher of any standardized test you plan to take
I am greatful to JoAnn Simon Esq and Robert Mapou PhD, as well as Jim Hardcastle Esq for their excellent training in understanding the changes to ADA
Good luck on your tests!
Dr. Rebecca Resnik
Licensed Clinical Psychologist