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This is how the college cheating scandal could hurt kids with learning differences

An education professional weighs in on what special accommodations on standardized tests are meant to achieve, and her fear that the recent college cheating scandal could make it even harder for the students who truly need help to get it.

This is how the college cheating scandal could hurt kids with learning differences
[Photo: michaelquirk/iStock]

The afternoon before the college admissions scandal hit earlier this week, I was in my office in the heart of the Silicon Valley doing what I have done for years—working with a high school student. We weren’t doing test prep or working on college applications. Instead, we were reading aloud the first three chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. As the story broke the next morning, I thought about sitting with this high school sophomore boy, watching him become excited at the prospect of finally understanding a book in a way that was meaningful for him. The combination of hearing the book out loud and reading along with someone helped with his comprehension.

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He has learning differences, like about a third of the students who come into my office. And like many of them, he qualifies for extended time and benefits from taking tests in a separate room. When he has to take a test with his classmates, he gets anxious and overwhelmed at taking longer, and the worry about his progress completely derails any chance he has for showcasing his abilities and scoring well.

More often than not, the students I work with who have learning differences have gone without a diagnosis for an extended period of time, which creates a sense of shame, and a feeling of never being good enough, academically or otherwise. And very often students with learning differences work really hard to find even moderate success in school.

By now, we know that along with hiring a firm to bribe, say, sailing and tennis coaches, many of the parents indicted in the college admissions scandal paid for private educational testing in hopes of qualifying for extended time on the SAT or ACT. For the College Board (which administers the SAT), students with double time are allowed to take the exam over two days. Students granted time and half on the ACT may be eligible to take it over multiple sessions, and are able to take the test under alternate testing conditions. The ACT, which some counselors argue is much harder to get accommodations, also allows tests to potentially be taken within a three-week testing window. All of this is how, according to the indictment in the “Operation Varsity Blues” case, an alternate proctor was able to facilitate cheating. The quick-take online has been that “bogus” psychological testing is one more thing rich kids are able to use to game the system—as though it’s no different from fake athletic recruitment.

What extra time on standardized tests is intended for

As someone who has worked with hundreds of students who truly needed testing accommodations, I cannot overemphasize how difficult it is to be granted this level of accommodations. Extended time is there for students who, among other things, struggle with test-taking anxiety, have challenges around task initiation or completion, and struggle with time management. Ideally, all students who need it should qualify. But getting accommodations approved has never been easy and often requires a lot of time, patience, and persistence on the part of students, parents, and educators. I am concerned that this scandal is going to make it even harder.

In truth, kids who need extended time really need it. It has utterly changed students’ ability to process information and perform to the best of their abilities. I’ve seen students with processing-speed challenges improve their SAT scores by 300-400 points (the SAT has a maximum score of 1600) or increase their ACT scores by 8-9 points (out of a 36-point maximum) with little other preparation than just having more time. Once students are able to figure out systems that work for them, they are able to navigate their world in a way that is empowering, far beyond getting a higher score on a test. These systems are exactly what I (and many of my professional colleagues) work to develop with students who otherwise are subjected to a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation.

By the way, for those students who don’t need extended time and end up qualifying, the ugly truth is that having extended time accommodations is likely be counterproductive. Have you ever met a teenager who wants to spend extra time taking a test? The extended time doesn’t automatically make students perform better. If anything, it will make them more tired, which in turn makes them more likely to make mistakes.

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We can certainly argue that this entire testing culture is terrible, and that the system should be overhauled. I understand that, and I don’t completely disagree. I can see how easy it is to write off this whole scandal as brazen criminal behavior by powerful parents who weren’t used to hearing the word “no” and wanted guaranteed results. That may be absolutely true. But it’s my hope that in our rightful outrage about this scandal, we don’t harm the many students who rightfully benefit from these accommodations, and should continue to do so.

Ana Homayoun is a school and workplace consultant and the author of three books, including most recently Social Media Wellness. Find her on Twitter at @anahomayoun.

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