College & Workforce Readiness

Students With Disabilities Sue ACT Over Release of Personal Information

By Catherine Gewertz — August 07, 2018 3 min read
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A group of college-bound students with special needs and their parents filed suit Monday against ACT Inc., claiming the the testmaker illegally disclosed to colleges that they have disabilities.

The class action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, challenges the way the Iowa-based company uses information about students with disabilities. It collects that information as part of the “profile” students fill out online as they register for the college-admission exam, and an information form that students complete on the day of the exam.

Introductory text in the profile tells students they can skip any question they don’t want to answer, but says it’s intended to “help you think about your future education and to help colleges in their planning.”

But instead of keeping it confidential, the suit says, ACT shares it with colleges by “flagging” their test-score reports, indicating that the scores were earned by someone who took the exam with accommodations.

ACT and the College Board, which makes the SAT, agreed years ago to stop flagging the test scores of students who take the exam with accommodations, after that practice drew widespread criticism.

But the new lawsuit says that the version of the score report that ACT sends to colleges shows information about disabilities, while the version that goes to students and their high schools does not.

Using students’ personal information that way “stigmatizes” them as they apply to college, Rahul Ravipudi, one of the attorneys on the students’ legal team, says in a prepared statement.

Edward Colby, a spokesman for ACT, said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit also takes issue with ACT for selling students’ information to colleges, scholarship programs, and other organizations for recruitment and marketing.

It says that ACT sells a searchable database to enrollment managers at colleges, and bills it as a way to find the “right students for your institution,” and provide the right support so students can succeed. But that information can also help colleges “create markets that intentionally exclude categories of students based upon the data elements provided, including students with disabilities,” the suit says.

“ACT profits off these violations and uses them to gain an edge in the marketplace over its only competitor, the College Board, which does not disclose students’ disabilities to colleges and universities,” the lawsuit says.

The students—from families in California, Colorado and Nevada—claim that their work prospects could be affected, also, because the data report created by ACT’s WorkKeys assessment—a popular career-readiness test—suggests that they took that exam with accommodations. “Tens of thousands of employers may have access to this data at any given time,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit describes how ACT’s information-sharing practices played out for the students. Halie Bloom, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif., graduated from high school this past spring. Because of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and a reading disability, she’s had an individualized education plan, or IEP, since middle school.

Bloom took the ACT several times with approved accommodations. ACT acquired the information about her disability from her test-registration process. The score reports it sent to the colleges she requested included a notation that she had a “learning or cognitive disability.”

Bloom will attend the University of Arizona in the fall. But she believes that colleges and scholarship organizations may have declined to consider her after ACT shared her disability status with them.

“I was shocked to learn that ACT was using my disability information against me and making it more difficult for me to get into college and get the money I need to go to college,” Bloom said in a prepared statement. “I’m speaking out, because I know that someone has to stand up for all of the students who are scared about how their disabilities will be used against them.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order that would bar ACT from collecting or disclosing students’ disability status to third parties as of the next administration of the test, in September. It also seeks damages for violation of students’ privacy and civil rights.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.