By Michael Albert
The SAT and ACT exams are far from perfect barometers of a student’s intelligence or academic potential. Despite that, they are the best we have. Both ACT and the College Board offer special, approved accommodations to those that can demonstrate a need for abnormal testing conditions. Recently, however, some alarming trends have developed across the country regarding those who have received such benefits.
Extended Time Accommodation, or “extra time” as it is widely referred to as, is not a bogus system. It was designed to, and continues to provide students with a disability (be it physical or mental) a more level playing field. As the ACT’s manager of testing accommodations, Susan Michaelson put it, “We are looking to provide equal access.” That is wonderful. Could you imagine a college process not skewed by socioeconomic status or hampered by disability? Good. Neither can I. Concordant with all other aspects of the college admissions process, disturbing discrepancies among affluent populations have developed that show a disparity between those receiving and not receiving ACT- or College Board- approved Extended Time.
Despite a widespread opinion that both testing companies have tightened restrictions in the approval process, still, a whopping 92% and 85% of requests were approved for both ACT and SAT, respectively. Furthermore, the raw number of students receiving Extended Time is also rapidly increasing. From the testing year 2007- 2008 to the 2010-2011 year, the national percentage of students receiving “extra time” increased by a startling 42%. Without diving into the contentious legitimacy of rapidly increasing ADD and ADHD diagnosis rates, it is certain that this increase is not a direct attribute of those increases.
Perhaps most alarming of all is the result of a 2012 analysis of the students receiving Extended Time in The State of Illinois. At double the national average, about 1 out of 10 juniors at Illinois public high schools received accommodations for the ACT. Some schools, however, reported even higher numbers such as 1 out of every 6 juniors from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois–170 juniors from one school alone– received special testing accommodations in 2011-2012 according to The Chicago Tribune. At more than triple the national average, not only are these statistics riveting alone, but their impact is magnified once one realizes that Winnetka is the second richest town in the country–only behind, dare I say, Scarsdale. Of course. Furthermore, almost 1 in 5 students taking college entrance exams at Deerfield, Highland Park, and Lake Forest (all elite, affluent, and predominantly Caucasian Illi- nois public schools) received some sort of testing accommodation. While not necessarily the majority, still, many of those students received scores in the 30s (out of a possible 36), and there is no doubt supplementary time is largely to blame. Not only are the percentages much lower of students receiving extra time in less affluent communities, but the result of the tests suggest more than an achievement gap–they suggest a severe rift in the types of students lobbying for and utilizing added time. Despite many scores above 30 at some elite schools, 4 Illinois public schools with high poverty levels saw 21-24% of students receive special assistance, and not a single, not ONE, student of those obtain a score higher than the national average of 21. Sadly, this is not a localized problem, and the solutions are uncertain.
Many students at Mamaroneck High School recognize the need for such accommodations, yet still do not fail to acknowledge the inequality so well depicted by a Chicago-suburb so similar on paper to our district in academic achievement and socioeconomic status. As one MHS senior put it, “Often, the case for people with extra time is that they get their doctor to sign something because they have anxiety or a minor attention deficit disorder, and if you dig deep enough searching for problems that warrant extra time, you’ll likely find something.” While not necessarily the full truth, this senior’s argument certainly resonates with many here at Mamaroneck High School, as the copious amount of peers receiving testing accommodations, and then boasting about scores well above the national average–heck, even the school aver- age–is certainly an added frustration in a time of already mounting pressure. The solutions are wide- spread and lack a majority-backed answer. Some believe that the testing companies should return to flagging those who receive special accommodation as both a symbol of accountability, and a deterrent from false aid–though largely pre- vented by legal obligations. Others propose a more comprehensive or improved standardized test. Victor Odouard ‘16 believes the issue is intrinsic to the style of the tests. He says, “I think the ‘edge’ that extra time provides is an indication of how flawed these tests really are. While, yes, being able to solve a certain number problems in a certain amount of time is important, the emphasis should be on the first part of that: solving problems. I get it–time is an important dimension in problem solving. But when time management becomes the most important aspect of the test, it becomes less a test on reasoning and more a test on short- term endurance.” Student opinion seemingly aligns with the statistics: extra time acts as a level for many with learning disabilities, but, as the number show, it is also widely exploited for its extremely advantageous result. The consensus is clear; there is a problem with the liberality of dishing out Extended Time Accommodations, but the optimal solution is quite possibly an overhaul of the entire testing institution.
Artwork courtesy of Hannah Kahn