Special Education

Students With Disabilities Fear Fallout From College Admissions Scandal

By Christina A. Samuels — March 20, 2019 3 min read
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Allegations of a complex and illegal scheme by wealthy families to get their children into top universities has students with disabilities, their families, and advocates worried about the backlash.

In the indictment released last week, federal authorities charge that some students lied about having disabilities so they could get special accommodations on college admissions tests.

As the details spilled out, people with disabilities took to social media to say that unsympathetic teachers, test officials and professors already make it hard on students with disabilities, particularly disabilities that are “invisible,” such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Having accommodations and disabilities linked to a scam is devastating, they said.

“It’s so frustrating, because the people who will be hurt by this will the ones who need the accommodations,” said Lindsay Jones, the chief executive officer of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “And it’s not going to be in the news when they’re hurt by this. It will be in those quiet moments, where they’re sitting in the disability office” at a college or university, she said.

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NCLD is a backer of the RISE Act, which would require colleges and universities to accept individualized education programs or Section 504 plans as evidence of a student’s disability.

According to the indictment, part of the fraud worked this way: Some students were granted accommodations that allowed them to take college admissions tests such as the SAT and the ACT over two days instead of just one, and in an individualized setting instead of with a group. The indictment also said that the system was manipulated so that students could take their tests at certain locations.

Law enforcement officials say that at that point, William Singer, the founder of a college preparatory business called known as “The Key,” parceled out bribes to have third parties take the tests for the students, or to review and correct answers on tests the students submitted. The money came from tens of thousands of dollars to The Key in “contributions” from well-off parents, the government charges.

Hurdles in Place

Many students say that receiving accommodations was far from the smooth process described in the indictment.

Savannah Treviño-Casias, a senior at Arizona State University, said she went through months of red tape with the College Board before being granted extended time to take the SAT. She has dyscalculia, which impairs a person’s ability to understand numbers and math facts. She also was given the chance to take the test by herself.

The accommodations reduced her anxiety and allowed her to focus more deeply on the test. But extra time didn’t give her an edge on learning concepts she didn’t already know, she said.

“Accommodations are there to provide more equal access, a more equal opportunity,” said Treviño-Casias, an honors student who is majoring in psychology and family and human development. “It’s not there to make it so that we’re better than anyone else.”

But her teachers have not always seen it that way. One college math professor refused to grant her accommodations, saying she just needed to work harder. “There are so many people like him,” she said. “I think this will make it that much harder for children with learning disabilities to prove it and have people believe they really need accommodations.”

Judith K. Bass, is an educational consultant, provides college consulting services to high school students with learning differences. She also is the chairwoman of the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners. She believes that the scandal will make the SAT, ACT, and others look more closely at students who request accommodations, but that students with documented needs should still be able to receive the accommodations they’re entitled to.

“It is going to be frustrating, and I’m sure they’re going to scrutinize a little more,” Bass said. “I know it’s going it’s going to cause a lot of angst, but I do think this piece of it will blow over.”

She recommends that students take ownership of their disabilities, by writing letters to colleges explaining why their test scores or some of their grades may have been influenced by their disability. “Colleges recognize that students who are self-aware are going to be good college students,” Bass said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Students With Disabilities Fear Scandal’s Fallout

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