Students with communication and other disabilities who are entitled to accommodations on high-stakes college and graduate school entrance exams often fail to receive them, according to a recent federal study that calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to improve its enforcement activities.
The study found that about 2% of test-takers received accommodations based on diagnoses ranging from autism to learning disabilities, compared with the much larger proportion of Americans—about 12%—estimated to have disabilities.
The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), "Higher Education and Disability: Improved Federal Enforcement Needed to Better Protect Students' Rights to Testing Accommodations," is available at the GAO's website.
The GAO report indicates that testing companies make it difficult for students taking certification or post-secondary exams to obtain accommodations—such as extra time or altered formats—that they have received in school. These accommodations are required under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA); the Department of Justice (DoJ) is responsible for enforcing ADA regulations related to testing.
Students surveyed for the report said testing companies require excessive documentation to prove their special needs and that the accommodations they do receive are not the same as those provided by schools. Test-takers with attention-deficit disorder, for example, might be offered private rooms or extra breaks, rather than the extra time they receive for taking tests in school.
Testing companies reported the need to ensure fairness to all test-takers and to maintain the reliability of their tests when making accommodations decisions, and indicated that making informed decisions is difficult when requests contain limited information. Some indicated that testing companies—not the applicant—should determine what accommodations will best ensure that test results reflect the applicant's aptitude.
Although companies that administer these high-stakes tests (e.g., SAT, ACT, GRE) must fulfill the requirements of the ADA, individuals and organizations have recently questioned whether the companies are fully compliant with these mandates. Three members of the U.S. House of Representatives—California Democrats George Miller and Pete Stark and Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers—requested a GAO study.
The GAO interviewed disability experts, individuals with disabilities, high school and postsecondary school officials, testing company representatives, and federal officials on:
- The types of accommodations individuals request and receive.
- How testing companies make decisions about accommodations requests.
- Challenges to receiving and granting accommodations.
The study also included reviews of testing company policies and data, testing company federal complaint and case data, and relevant laws and regulations.
The report found that the DoJ considers complaints on an individual basis rather than through a systematic approach, resulting in inconsistent consideration of complaints and ineffective use of limited resources. The report also found that:
- Testing companies have not changed their policies in response to changes in the law, and DoJ needs to hold testing companies accountable.
- Testing companies impose burdensome and expensive documentation requirements on students.
- Requests for accommodations are not handled in a timely manner; consequently, test-takers may fall behind their peers while waiting for a response or risk taking the test without accommodations.
- DoJ officials do not systematically review information about complaints, track complaints related to specific issues, or communicate regularly with the other two agencies—Education and Health and Human Services—that also receive complaints.
- Although permitted to do so, DoJ has never initiated a compliance review to evaluate a testing company's accommodation policies, practices, or records.
The report's broad recommendation—that DoJ develop a strategic approach to target its testing accommodations enforcement efforts—is based on the conclusion that DoJ has not fully used its own or other agencies' complaint data to inform its efforts.
The report suggests that such a strategic approach could include analyzing complaint and case data, coordinating with Education and Health and Human Services, and updating technical assistance manuals. DoJ agreed with GAO's recommendation.
Clinicians who work with students who receive in-school testing accommodations because of speech, language, and hearing difficulties can help their students receive these accommodations from independent testing companies. Clinicians can help students:
- Gather as much documentation as possible.
- The past few years of individualized education programs showing the use of the accommodations across environments.
- Multidisciplinary evaluation report substantiating the existence and nature of the disability as it relates to reading, attention, or other aspects of the student's disability.
- Observational reports.
- Input from parents and classroom teachers.
- Comparative data on tests taken with and without accommodations.
- Specific rationale for the accommodation, tied to the student's specific diagnosis.
- A letter from the student discussing the value and need for the accommodation.
- Continue to pursue the accommodations, appealing the initial decision if necessary.
- Help parents contact the DoJ (and possibly the Department of Education) with concerns about specific denials.
- Help parents contact local legislators to bring the issue to their attention and to request their support. Submitting a letter from a legislator along with the application for accommodations may help.
For more information, contact Catherine D. Clarke, director of education and regulatory advocacy, at email@example.com or 800-498-2071, ext. 5611.