Standardized tests are stressful for many students.
High-stakes exams with a strict time limit, like the SAT, can be particularly anxiety-inducing, sweating the palms of jittery students until they are unable to grip their pencils. The resulting scores, predictably, can suffer.
For the select few, there are some options for easing that stress and potentially improving academic performance. Officially, they’re known as “accommodations” — most commonly, that amounts to extra time to complete an exam. But they can also include braille and large print exams, use of a computer for essays, use of a four-function calculator and extra breaks.
In 2014, six percent of Florida’s SAT test-takers self-reported to have some “disabling condition,” according to the College Board, the agency which administers the SAT and AP tests. Yet, just two percent wound up taking the test with a “non-standard” condition, meaning they succeeded in obtaining an accommodation like extra time or prolonged breaks between test sections.
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Like many education issues, the reasons that one kid gets an accommodation and another doesn’t are complicated. But income differences seem to play one big part.
“There’s strong evidence of an income and class skew in who gets exemptions,” said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, an organization that advocates for rethinking the role of standardized tests. “I suspect you’d find a difference between Overtown and Coral Gables based on economics and power.”
Wealthy families have one obvious advantage. They have money to pay for medical experts who can verify a student’s issues and — more important — provide the documentation and evidence the College Board requires before granting an accommodation.
“We recommend students to apply for accommodations early as possible, ideally at least seven weeks prior to test day, because the process can take a few weeks or longer,” the College Board said in a statement. “In general, students are approved for College Board test accommodations if a student provides a documented disability that impacts their ability to participate in College Board exams.”
Schaeffer says that bad press over a decade ago exposed the lengths that some rich families took to get unfair testing accommodations.
“To some degree stories like the exposé that the LA Times did ... woke everybody up to some places where people are gaming the system,” Schaeffer said.
It’s now harder to game the system, particularly with the College Board’s policies, and fewer parents are explicitly seeking extra time on tests for their children, he said.
“In my clinical experience it is rare that someone comes in asking for accommodations,” Pinecrest psychiatrist Dr. Rodney Parker-Yarnal said. “Often enough, I get parents coming in just wanting Adderall.”
Parker-Yarnal added that there is a shortage of qualified psychologists and psychiatrists available to diagnose learning disabilities that lead to testing accommodations.
A variety of factors can explain the four percent gap between those who reported disabilities and those who received accommodations.
Some students may have disabilities that did not meet the College Board’s threshold. Other students with issues may not apply.
“The kids who grow up in poverty are less likely to have been given vision tests and getting vision aids that they need,” Schaeffer said. “It’s all cumulative, the correlation between family income and average test scores, access to accommodations.”
One thing the numbers show, however, is that high-performing students are not abusing accommodations to seek an additional edge for that Ivy League application.
In 2014, students granted accommodations received lower scores on the SAT than average. But accommodations did seem to boost students who self-reported a learning disability. They received average SAT scores of 479 in critical reading, 480 in math and 468 in writing. Students who self-reported a learning disability received slightly lower scores across the board, 478 in critical reading, 468 in math and 456 in writing.
The College Board did not collect data on accommodations in 2015.
Parker-Yarnal noted that many families with young children do not seek accommodations for ailments like ADHD until later in their academic careers, which can have a negative impact on their self-esteem and academic performance.
Parker-Yarmal encourages parents to see a psychiatrist, psychologist or school official if they believe their child could benefit from a testing accommodation.
“When we’re doing our best we’re not pill pushers,” Parker-Yarmal said. “We do all the stuff we can do before getting a pill.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified that the College Board administers the ACT. It only administers the SAT and AP tests.
Test anxiety signs
If you are unsure if your child qualifies for a testing accommodation Dr. Rodney Parker-Yarmal recommends the following steps:
▪ Look for signs of inattentiveness and difficulty in academic performance, even if your child is not exhibiting signs of hyperactivity.
▪ Check out chadd.org for more information on ADHD.
▪ Talk to a school official or schedule a visit with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
▪ Obtain a diagnosis from a medical professional, if symptoms are in line with ADHD
▪ Apply for a 504 plan with your child. The plan ensures a child with ADHD will receive academic accommodations in line with their diagnosis.
▪ Be careful labeling your child as “lazy.”