July 1, 2002

Controversy over SAT Accommodations

(First Heard as a "Perspective" on KQED-FM, the San Francisco NPR Affiliate)

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, recently decided to decrease the stigma of accommodations afforded children with handicaps by eliminating the dreaded asterisk that accompanied their SAT scores. Under the threat of continued legal action, ETS will no longer flag these scores as "obtained under special conditions" like unlimited time or taking the test in a separate room. Advocates for the disabled are pleased.

 But some high school and college administrators are concerned that eliminating the asterisk will end any inhibition students and their parents have over requesting accommodations. Ten years ago most of the children seeking these accommodations had cerebral palsy or overt hearing and visual handicaps . Now, applications from affluent sophisticated families over conditions like dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD are expected to flood the system.

And I will be one of those professionals asked repeatedly to determine whether a teenager "has" ADHD is a dubious intellectual and ethical task at best. Virtually none of these high school kids are hyperactive or impulsive but could still meet the standards for this diagnosis.

I certainly understand parents' desires to assist their children educationally and grant them every competitive advantage the system legally allows. But supposed ADHD behaviors like "difficulty sustaining attention," and "does not seem to listen when spoken to directly," accurately describe at least twenty per cent of my two teenage sons' friends.

I worry about the watering down of serious handicaps and clear standards. Thereís a backlash developing to the extremes of the disability rightsí movement. Recent Supreme Court decisions limiting the Americans with Disabilities Act are one sign. Students, taking the SAT under standard conditions and denied the college of their choice, will resent the new unflagged unlimited time SAT score policy. How long before another Bakke court decision, which began the end of the affirmative action movement, starts a similar course for disability accommodations in education and employment?

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