Thursday, August 1, 2019

New York Times on the booming market for student disability accommodations

The New York Times is reporting the market is booming for students seeking disability accommodations which give them extra time to take exams (including the SAT, ACT, and presumably the LSAT though it's not specifically mentioned in the article) that can result in a significant, competitive advantage for those students. Though the article points out that evidence of outright fraud in seeking these accommodations is scant, diagnosing a disability like ADHD often exists in a grey area that makes the process vulnerable to abuse. Thus, parents willing to spend enough money may eventually find a doctor willing to provide the requested paperwork. As the Times points out, the newspaper's own investigation revealed that students from wealthy communities obtained disability accommodations anywhere from twice to seven times the national average - you can draw your own conclusions from that.

Need Extra Time on Tests? It Helps to Have Cash

Demand for disability accommodations for schoolwork and testing has swelled. But access to them is unequal and the process is vulnerable to abuse.


The boom began about five years ago, said Kathy Pelzer, a longtime high school counselor in an affluent part of Southern California. More students than ever were securing disability diagnoses, many seeking additional time on class work and tests.


A junior taking three or four Advanced Placement classes, who was stressed out and sleepless. A sophomore whose grades were slipping, causing his parents angst. Efforts to transfer the children to less difficult courses, Ms. Pelzer said, were often a nonstarter for their parents, who instead turned to private practitioners to see whether a diagnosis — of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, perhaps, or anxiety or depression — could explain the problem.


Such psychological assessments can cost thousands of dollars, and are often not covered by insurance. For some families, the ultimate goal was extra time — for classroom quizzes, essays, state achievement tests, A.P. exams and ultimately the SAT and ACT.


“You’ll get what you’re looking for if you pay the $10,000,” Ms. Pelzer said, citing the highest-priced evaluations. “It’s a complicated mess.”


From Weston, Conn., to Mercer Island, Wash., word has spread on parenting message boards and in the stands at home games: A federal disability designation known as a 504 plan can help struggling students improve their grades and test scores. But the plans are not doled out equitably across the United States.


In the country’s richest enclaves, where students already have greater access to private tutors and admissions coaches, the share of high school students with the designation is double the national average. In some communities, more than one in 10 students have one — up to seven times the rate nationwide, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.


In Weston, where the median household income is $220,000, the rate is 18 percent, eight times that of Danbury, Conn., a city 30 minutes north. In Mercer Island, outside Seattle, where the median household income is $137,000, the number is 14 percent. That is about six times the rate of nearby Federal Way, Wash., where the median income is $65,000.


Students in every ZIP code are dealing with anxiety, stress and depression as academic competition grows ever more cutthroat. But the sharp disparity in accommodations raises the question of whether families in moneyed communities are taking advantage of the system, or whether they simply have the means to address a problem that less affluent families cannot.


While experts say that known cases of outright fraud are rare, and that most disability diagnoses are obtained legitimately, there is little doubt that the process is vulnerable to abuse. Some of the learning differences exist in diagnostic gray areas that can make it difficult to determine whether a teenager is struggling because of parental and school pressure or because of a psychological impairment. And private mental health practitioners operate with limited oversight, either from school systems or from within their own professions.


. . . .


An Unequal Diagnosis

In Washington, D.C., one mother said she had spent about $7,000 on neuropsychological evaluations for her son, now 17. She had little doubt that he needed extra help but she acknowledged that her family had resources that others in similar situations did not.


“It’s totally unfair,” said the mother, who works in political communications and asked not to be named because she wanted to keep her child’s medical history private. “I know how to advocate for my kid. We made sure he got what he needed and it wasn’t always clear. We bring that privilege to the table.”


In early childhood, her son had delays in speech, language and fine motor skills, struggling to sound out words and hold a pencil. By middle school, he had A.D.H.D. and anxiety diagnoses. His charter high school gave him a 504 plan, which offered extra time on tests and the use of a keyboard to type answers and take notes in class. He was also able to avoid filling in bubble sheets.


The 504 plans, which get their name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are intended to help people who have a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” learning or other activities. They offer students such accommodations as a seat at the front of the classroom or a private room for exams, free of distractions.


One of the most common accommodations is extra time on classroom tests, which the two main college admissions testing companies, the College Board and ACT, look for when determining whether to grant students additional time for their exams. Many students struggle to complete standardized tests in the allotted minutes, and research has found that having more time can raise scores for students who have a decent grasp of the test material, whether or not they have a disability.

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