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Have SAT Accommodations Gone Too Far?

Offering students extra time and other testing accommodations could affect validity

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You may have missed a change in the testing world that’s now "old" news: More students with disabilities who have individualized education programs, or IEPs, can take the SAT with what are called—often erroneously—"accommodations," with few questions asked.

Under a new process, the College Board, which is the official SAT developer, will approve SAT accommodation requests, the most sought-after of which is extra time, for the vast majority of students whose plans already allow accommodations for school tests. Though the change took place in January, the first SAT of this school year under the new policy—which also applies to the PSAT, SAT subject tests, and Advanced Placement exams—is this month. English-language learners who take a state-funded SAT during the school day can also get extended time starting this fall. (The ACT, which is not a College Board product, also made similar changes.)

Standardized testing is an omnipresent industry. At a minimum, we expect tests to provide valid results that actually measure what they purport to measure. On the SAT, it’s performance under a time constraint—three hours, with an additional 50 minutes for an optional essay, excluding breaks. The new policy seems to toss that minimum to the wind.

As long as we continue to require tests for students, call me a validity-in-testing advocate. It’s important that we define what, exactly, is being tested before we can figure out how certain students should be tested. The new policy raises two essential questions: First, who decides which students get "accommodations?" Second, what do results mean when time constraints vary among students?

I first raised this issue in 2003 when the College Board stopped flagging results of students with disabilities who used extra time and other accommodations. At the time, the College Board set up a rigorous approval process for students seeking such accommodations, trying to keep the lid at around 2 percent of all test-takers.

But the College Board was pressured to create a more streamlined and lenient system last year by the U.S. Department of Justice, which responded to complaints about a laborious, document-laden approval process, especially with the SATs used in state-testing programs. In essence, the College Board has now agreed to delegate testing decisions to school districts’ IEP teams—with a quick approval process and few questions asked. That raises new validity issues that have been largely ignored.

In making individual decisions, IEP teams can provide the avenue to accommodations and modifications for students. Accommodations, such as large print or a quiet room, provide test access without fundamentally changing the test itself. They level the playing field. In contrast, modifications fundamentally alter the test and change the game.

Since the SAT tests performance within a specific time, the new policy seems to be a modification that changes what is tested and creates, in essence, a different test. Allowing more time on a timed test is like changing font size on an eye exam. It’s no longer the same test.

"More time on a timed test is like changing the font size on an eye exam. It's no longer the same test."

The College Board owes it to students and educators to clarify: Is timing essential to what the SAT measures? Or is timing merely for administrative convenience? That is, is extended time an accommodation or a modification?

Evidence of how this policy leads to the end of standardization is easy to find. School-based teams of educators and parents that develop IEPs for special education services or Section 504 accommodation plans (under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) for individual students can be notoriously subjective, individualized, and subject to local pressures. For example, a student found eligible for an IEP in one community may be considered ineligible in another.

As a school lawyer, I’ve witnessed the growing pressures schools face to provide extended time to more students, especially in affluent communities. Distribution of accommodations for wealthy and poor students is not equitable. Decisions often come down to parents’ advocacy—not intrinsic student attributes. What a flawed gatekeeper the College Board has hired.

The College Board’s allowance of accommodations (or are they modifications?) has grown in recent years. The board received (and approved 85 percent of) around 80,000 accommodation requests in 2010-11 and 160,000 requests in 2015-16, according to The Record. Where will it end, especially with planned accommodations for English-language learners? Will we reach a tipping point when we must acknowledge that the SAT is no longer standardized? IEPs or 504 plans should not drive test policy, but apparently now they will.

What to do? If the College Board determines that timing is essential, its options to ensure the SAT’s validity include either not allowing extra time for any student, or, in this personalized-learning era, allowing all students to choose whether to take the test timed or with extra time. If the latter, their reports should indicate nonstandard-test administration. The SAT’s time limits have challenged children and educators for years. Since students can opt to take the essay portion of the SAT, why not provide other options? I suspect there are many students without IEPs or 504 plans who might welcome and benefit from more time.

If timing is not essential to the SAT’s test validity, every student should be allowed unlimited time without question. These options would bypass the need for a disability or English-language-learner designation.

The bottom line is: If timing isn’t essential to what the SAT measures, the College Board should stop its convoluted approach. To level the playing field and maintain validity, it should end the pretense that the SAT is timed, throw away the clocks, hire more proctors, and give all students as much time as they want or need. If timing is essential, the College Board better get to work to protect the validity of its prize product. So long as we as a nation remain focused on testing, it’s time for a robust conversation about validity issues.

Vol. 37, Issue 02, Page 24

Published in Print: August 30, 2017, as Have SAT Accommodations Gone Too Far?
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