Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Opportunity from the College Admissions Scandal

As a parent this makes me really angry. As a teacher I'm sure it infuriates you. 
My friends definitely know me! Ironically, the day before I received this text, I had administered the PSAT 9 with accommodations to a group of students. Ding goes the email: LDA Condemns Fraud in College Admissions Testing Accommodations (March 12, 2019). So glad to be part of an organization which could, and did, respond immediately. Thus began chatter and conversation about the recent college admissions scandal in my world. Chatter and conversations which ended up touching most of my "brains": parent; teacher; administrator; learning disabilities specialist; human being with integrity.

As I processed the actions being reported, I grew beyond infuriated. I became motivated and inspired. I realized it was an opportunity that we should not let pass by.

An Opportunity?

As I processed the emotions of outrage, frustration, anxiety and disgust, I settled on the thought that this situation also creates an opportunity. The concept of disabilities is not well understood so it is no wonder that testing accommodations are also not well understood. They are seen as some kind of "add on" and shrouded in some type of mystery or seen as an option that only the "lucky" qualify for. No, they are not. They are designed for specific situations. This scandal provides some opportunities to help people better understand this.

I have worked with students with disabilities who prepare for and take these types of high-stakes tests with accommodations for over a couple decades now. When I hear comments from others such as "well, who wouldn't do well with more time" or "they just want a higher score", I usually cringe, but sometimes I laugh. Really? Who in their right mind wants to sit to take a test any longer than needed? What teenager would prefer to take a big test in a different room that his or her peers? Not many! I tend to shrug off their comments and we all move on.

This scandal became an opportunity for me to reflect on these comments as well as my response to them. I shrug off the individual comments because I don't want to start an argument; I don't blame folks for not really knowing what they're talking about since it's such a specific and complex issue; I know that those individuals' comments or attitudes won't really change anything in the world of disabilities or accommodations so I figure I'll save my energies to argue when it "matters". This scandal made me take myself to task. It always matters.

Ethics and Accommodations

As a learning disabilities specialist and advocate, I am more angry with the consultant in these cases than with the parents. The parents were following advice from an "expert". Advice which was completely unethical. An expert who took advantage of a system that is not understood. He played on the fact that people do not understand disabilities or accommodations well. The fact that these are topics are not frequently talked about worked to his advantage. There is a stigma and mystique attached to learning disabilities that worked to his advantage. We should take this opportunity to speak up, to educate others, and to expand our conversations about equity and acceptance to include those with disabilities.

College board and other testing agencies require documentation that the disability is accommodated in the school setting. A student does not have to be eligible for special education (have an IEP) to qualify for accommodations on a standardized test, but they do need to have some verification that the same accommodations are used in the classroom, have been over time, and are utilized on other assessments, such as state assessments.  This raises significant questions about the documentation process at the schools the students attended for high school. We should take this opportunity to learn more about how we can do better.

Advocates, teachers and parents are often frustrated because testing accommodation requests are turned down and seen as hard to get. I disagree. Testing accommodations are not hard to "get"; they require the appropriate documentation. The fact that someone who needs these accommodations is not receiving appropriate documentation but some people who have paid for it did only highlights a huge issue within our documentation practices. We should use this opportunity to improve these practices to make it less hard for those who should have accommodations to access them.

Being a proctor of these tests with accommodations adds a whole other level of disgust and anxiety for me. To be the person administering the test in these situations requires a high level of integrity. It is necessary to complete specific training and sign specific agreements, etc... The proctors who accepted money to provide this environment and then even provided answers to the test could bring the integrity of every proctor of testing accommodations into question. We should use this opportunity to send a big thank you to those who are proctors and have not abused this position.

An evaluation for a learning disability or ADHD should always include multiple data sources. That is to ensure that the strengths and challenges are pervasive and not situational. An evaluation is also never the only source used to justify testing accommodations. For an advisor to tell someone to pretend to be slow for an evaluation is not only unethical, it is offensive. People with learning disabilities or ADHD are not slow. They are not stupid. Cognitive or achievement functions such as attention, processing, reading, writing and/or math require neurological interactions and inconsistencies are not a choice. Asking someone to fake those inconsistencies is similar to asking someone to hide one of their legs or limp a lot so they could qualify for a wheelchair or crutches. We should take this opportunity to change beliefs and conversations about the dis- part of disability.


As a parent, I love my children unconditionally and with all my heart. I want to do everything I can to help them be successful but I also realize that they will be the ones with the responsibility for the actual "doing". A standardized test is not supposed to be a one-and-done experience. It is supposed to be a measure of what someone knows and what that person may need to know more about. It can be taken more than once. I love my kids too much to send them the message that they are not enough on their own. I took this scandal as an opportunity to tell my girls I love and respect them too much to ever pay someone to fake their success.

I have a child with learning disability and ADHD. I have a child who took the PSAT and SAT with accommodations. She is not stupid. She is not slow. She is not "broken" in any way. She has had opportunities. Some are certainly because my husband and I were able to afford them but I take this opportunity to say again that access to an appropriate evaluation and support services should not be a matter of privilege; it should be a right. I take this opportunity to give a shout out to her counselor and those at her high school who took the time and consideration needed to ensure the appropriate documentation of the reasonable accommodations she utilized in her classes. I also take this opportunity to give my daughter a big shout out for being a strong, intelligent young woman who has worked hard for all of her successes, including being accepted to Michigan State University (and okaying me to share these pieces of her specific story).

Parents invested a lot of money into ensuring their children were accepted into specific colleges. Not really a new practice and not necessarily a bad thing. Parents invest money in tutors, study aides, extra-curricular activities and other tools to help their children develop the skills or talents needed to stand out in some way for college admissions. Socio-economic status is a barrier for accessing many of these types of resources. This is one example of the disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and many have taken this scandal as an opportunity to continue those discussions.

Parents were caught using this money to create documentation of needs or accomplishments that were false to get those children accepted at a specific college. That is not privilege or disparity; that is bad parenting. It is also criminal.

I suggest that we could all take this scandal as an opportunity to reflect on how we communicate our beliefs about success and disabilities to all children.

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