Being granted accommodations for high-stakes standardized tests is no easy task, especially if your child is a high-achiever who has learned to successfully compensate for a disability. Fortunately, during the Obama administration there were some positive legal developments that have made the law both clearer and more favorable to high-achieving applicants. When testing companies deny accommodations to high-achievers, the reasons are usually the same. Here are those reasons and several strategies to combat those denials.
“Eleventh Hour” Disabilities
Testing companies to which you submit an accommodation request get hundreds of applications for extended time for every test sitting; they often don’t have time to carefully review each application. Naturally, they tend to skim for what they consider red flags that can disqualify an applicant. One such red flag is a late diagnosis. Testing companies derisively term those late diagnoses as “eleventh hour” disabilities, ones that seem to have developed conveniently around college application time.
But the truth is that although some high-achievers have been disabled throughout their educational careers, nonetheless they have been able to coast through school because the work was not very challenging. Notwithstanding the timing, sometimes a legitimate anxiety or emotional disorder will develop in high school.
The best way to combat a denial in this situation is to provide the testing service with documentation (i.e., school records, evaluations, physician letters) proving that your child had symptoms for years, even if the symptoms were only recently diagnosed. Using bullet points, write about what your child has had to do to compensate for a disability, such as giving up extracurricular activities so as to have more study time. If the disability is psychological or emotional and has legitimately developed only recently, document that, too.
Your Child Lacks an Accommodation Plan in High School
While it’s certainly advantageous in this process to have a formal accommodation plan in school, there’s no legal requirement to have a formal accommodation plan in order to qualify for accommodations on a standardized test. Some kids get informal accommodations in school and if you document it, that should be sufficient to qualify test accommodations. Other kids have tried to get formal accommodations and school wrongly delay or refuse them. So, if your child doesn’t have a plan, don’t think you’re out of options.
ADHD or Other Disabilities Which Are Difficult to Reliably Document
Because there’s no simple test for ADHD, and its symptoms can often be confused with other disorders, testing companies often look askance at applicants for accommodations whose only disability is ADHD. Anxiety, depression and certain types of learning disabilities can also be difficult to document, especially with high-achievers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that to be eligible for accommodations, a student must have a disability that “substantially limits” a major life activity, such as learning, reading or concentrating, as compared with the general population.” Most applicants need a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation that demonstrates the extent to which a disability limits the student academically. Generally, that means that you need to show with numbers that your child’s disability affects performance in certain areas, placing the student’s performance at or below the 16th percentile.
Decisions by testing organizations are often unpredictable because they review hundreds of applications for accommodations for each test sitting, and don’t have time to carefully review each student’s circumstances. The most critical aspect of an application for accommodations is documenting the educational history of the disability and/or its symptoms. In a cover letter parents should present the documentation in a clear, concise way.
Although your child’s school is supposed to submit an application for accommodations online on your behalf, don’t hesitate to send a hard copy of a cover letter to supplement it. Often schools will submit a request to the ACT or SAT only if your child is getting accommodations in school, and as discussed above some high-achievers have never gotten formal accommodations in school. To make the information readily accessible, cover letters should be very well-organized, sectioned with headers, and detailed with bullet points under each section. Attach the documents referenced in the letter.
The law governing testing accommodations is fairly complex, and it would benefit you to hire an attorney for a consultation, or to write a cover letter, so that your child’s unique educational history can be clearly and persuasively presented in a legal context. Also, some attorneys, such as the author, have relationships with the testing organizations and can advocate on your child’s behalf. However, if you’re not able to hire an attorney, it would go a long way to write your own cover letter that clearly and concisely presents the important information described above.