Special Education

Suit Targets ACT on Student Privacy

By Catherine Gewertz — August 21, 2018 3 min read
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A group of college-bound students with special needs and their parents have filed suit against ACT Inc., claiming the test-maker illegally disclosed to colleges that they have disabilities.

The class action, filed Aug. 6 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, as well as 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.”

Instead of keeping it confidential, though, 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 sponsors 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 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.

Influencing Admissions?

Using students’ personal information that way “stigmatizes” them as they apply to college, Rahul Ravipudi, a lawyer on the students’ legal team, said in a 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, billing it as a way to find the “right students for your institution” and provide the right support so students can succeed.

That information, however, 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 also be affected 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 program, or IEP, since middle school.

Bloom took the ACT several times with approved accommodations. ACT acquired the information about her disability in her test registration. 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 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 article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Suit Targets ACT on Student Privacy


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