Special Education

Test Companies Lower ‘Flags’ On College-Entrance Exams

By Lisa Fine — August 07, 2002 3 min read
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Students with disabilities who need extra time when taking either of the nation’s two major college-entrance exams will no longer be “flagged,” beginning in the 2003-04 school year. Advocates for the disabled regard the practice as something of an academic scarlet letter.

Under the practice, the score reports of students who received more time on the SAT have featured an asterisk indicating the tests were given through “nonstandard administration.” But the College Board, which owns the SAT, agreed to end the practice under a July 15 settlement with advocates for people with disabilities and a man who objected having his score singled out in that manner.

Immediately following the settlement, ACT officials, who flagged tests by marking them “special,” said they were re-examining their own policies. Then, 11 days later, they decided to follow the SAT’s lead and stop flagging scores.

“We’d been watching the SAT situation for some time and had been evaluating our own policy,” said Ken Gullette, an ACT spokesman, said last week. “We made our decision to end the practice. We are all in the business to make the tests as fair to everybody as we can.”

For the SAT, the change begins with tests taken as of Oct. 1, 2003. ACT officials said their new policy would take effect for tests taken in the fall of the 2003-04 school year.

“This is a triumphant day for millions of people with dyslexia and other disabilities,” J. Thomas Viall, the executive director of the International Dyslexia Association, based in Baltimore, said of the agreement with the College Board. “With the ‘scarlet letter’ gone, people with disabilities are given the chance to succeed, based on their abilities.”

The agreement stems from a 1999 lawsuit by the International Dyslexia Association; Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal group in Oakland, Calif.; and Mark Breimhorst, a California man whose score on the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, was flagged. Mr. Breimhorst needed extra time and a special computer to take the text because he has no hands.

But after he was rejected by the business schools to which he applied, Mr. Breimhorst filed a suit in July of 1999 in a California federal court charging that the Educational Testing Service policy violated state and federal anti- discrimination laws. The ETS, which develops, administers, and scores the SAT and several other tests owned by the College Board, had already agreed in February to remove all such flags from the GMAT, its other graduate school admissions tests, and Praxis teacher-certification tests. At that time, as part of the terms of the settlement, the College Board and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit agreed to convene a panel of jointly selected experts to consider the issue of flagging for the SAT.

Not a Race

That panel’s deliberations led to the July agreement. The committee had recommended that the College Board stop flagging for accommodations such as extra time. Flagging is unnecessary, the panel said in a report, because the SAT is not intended to be a measure of test-taking speed.

“While agreeing that the rights of disabled persons should prevail over other considerations,” Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, said in a prepared statement, “we also recognize the ongoing concerns raised by guidance counselors and admission directors that the College Board must uphold a rigorous review process to ensure that extended test-taking time is not granted to students who do not require this accommodation.”

College Board officials said about 2 percent of the organization’s SAT test-takers need accommodations. Extra time, they said, is by far the most common request. The ACT, which is owned and administered by ACT, Inc., a nonprofit based in Iowa City, Iowa, reported roughly the same percentage of students needing extra time.

College Board officials had said they were worried that if they stopped flagging, it would encourage students who really don’t need extra time to pursue the accommodation in the hope of aiding their test performance. But disability-rights advocates said there is little risk of that happening because the policies allow extra time only for students with documented disabilities.

The SAT was taken by some 1.2 million college-bound students last year. About a million college-bound students took the ACT.

“There isn’t any justification to continue the practice of flagging,” said Alison Aubrejuan, a staff lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates. “Testing agencies, when they devise tests and pilot them, neglect to take into account the needs of people with disabilities. The tests are created for nondisabled test-takers.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Test Companies Lower ‘Flags’ On College-Entrance Exams

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