In a groundbreaking decision, the Educational Testing Service announced last week that students with disabilities who receive extra time to take its graduate-admissions tests will no longer have such accommodations noted on the scores sent to colleges and universities.
The policy, which is to go into effect in October, covers such tests as the Graduate Record Examinations and PRAXIS, a widely used series of tests for prospective teachers. But it eventually could have much broader implications for precollegiate education by affecting such assessments as the SAT, the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and the Advanced Placement exams, which are administered by the ETS but are owned by the New York City-based College Board.
Under the terms of the agreement, which helped settle a lawsuit filed by a California man, the College Board and the plaintiffs will select a panel of testing, college-admission, and disability experts to consider whether to end similar flagging practices for extra time given on the College Board exams. The settlement calls for the parties to select the panel by the end of June, so that it can issue its report by March 31, 2002. If disability-rights advocates disagree with the outcome, they have the option of reopening the lawsuit.
Although the College Board was not named in the suit, its president, Gaston Caperton, said he was “pleased to support the decision to study the flagging issue.”
The decision also is being closely watched by disability-rights advocates at the state level who have been pushing for students with physical and learning disabilities to receive appropriate accommodations to take the high-stakes tests now required for graduation and promotion in some states.
“We are just incredibly pleased that the Educational Testing Service has decided to implement this change,” said Joshua G. Konecky, a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law center in Oakland, Calif., that represents the plaintiffs. “It’s going to have a profound effect on literally thousands of test-takers with disabilities each year, and it’s one more step in the direction of ensuring that all people with disabilities get a level playing field.”
‘Great Step Forward’
“I think it’s a great step forward,” agreed Tom Viall, the executive director of the Baltimore-based International Dyslexic Association, one of the disability- rights groups involved in the suit. “ETS is acknowledging that, for most of its standardized testing, flagging is not necessary. If I were in those states where this issue is on my desk, I’d be listening.”
Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., based organization that is critical of standardized testing, called the decision “both a major step forward and a first step, because it has not been extended to the SAT, and that’s where the numbers are.”
Nearly 2.4 million students take the SAT annually. In 1999-2000, about 49,000 of the exams were administered under special conditions. According to the ETS, the vast majority of accommodations are for extended time, although in most instances, individuals who request more time also ask for other accommodations.
For decades, the Princeton, N.J.- based ETS has reported when students have taken one of its tests under “nonstandard testing conditions” by marking such scores with an asterisk and noting they may not accurately reflect the test-taker’s educational ability. Disability-rights advocates have long claimed that the practice unfairly stigmatizes special-needs students.
The current agreement stems from a lawsuit filed in July 1999 by Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of Mark Breimhorst. Mr. Breimhorst, who has no hands, was granted extra time and the use of a computer with a trackball—a stationary pointing device similar to a mouse—for taking the Graduate Management Admission Test. But after he was rejected from the business schools to which he applied, he filed a suit charging that the ETS policy violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws. The International Dyslexic Association and Californians for Disability Rights joined the suit.
The testing service tried to have the case dismissed. But last year, U.S. District Judge William Orrick of San Francisco refused the request, ruling that if the testing company’s exams measured the skills of disabled and nondisabled individuals equally, “there would be no reason to flag the scores of test-takers who received accommodations.”
In agreeing to the settlement, the ETS did not acknowledge violating any law. And it can continue to point out the test scores of individuals whose accommodations “change the construct” of what is measured, said Patricia E. Taylor, the ETS’ associate general counsel.
For example, if an individual requires the reading- comprehension portion of a test to be read aloud, or if the listening portion of a test is dropped because a person is deaf, such accommodations could still be noted, she explained. “The only thing that would no longer be flagged is extended time,” she said.
Making a Difference?
Testing experts reacted to the new policy with caution last week. “If we could identify people with disabilities accurately and consistently, and we could identify clearly what construct-irrelevant impediments those disabilities cause, and if we could say with a reasonable degree of confidence which accommodations would offset those irrelevant impediments without giving an unwarranted benefit, then this would be exactly the right thing to do,” said Daniel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist with the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. “The problem is that none of those conditions holds, in many cases.”
Warren W. Willingham, a retired research scientist who, in 1988, co-wrote a book for the ETS on the subject of accommodations, said students with disabilities perform slightly better if given more time. “But,” he added, “it doesn’t make nearly as much difference as people imagine. It’s very difficult to know precisely the extent to which a particular student needs more time.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as ETS To End Extra-Time Notations For Disabled