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Commentary of the Day - Dec 23, 2000: Learning Disability - Handicap or Privilege:
The office of the California State Auditor recently released the results of an extensive audit intended to determine if there was a significant number of students who were unfairly receiving extra time to complete the SAT or ACT tests from questionable claims of learning disabilities. This audit was done at the request of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the California legislature. The audit committee's request was based on a suspicion that some students who did not actually have learning disabilities were claiming them in order to obtain unfair advantage on college admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT. The audit results were both revealing and disturbing.
The State Auditor examined requests for extra time on both the college admissions tests (SAT and ACT) and on the STAR tests. STAR is an acronym for the Standardized Testing and Reporting program of the California Department of Education. STAR tests are given to all California public school children in grades 2 through 11. Their main purpose is to measure the achievement of students, schools, and school districts. Although there are incentives that accrue to teachers and schools if students do well on STAR exams, individual students do not receive any particular reward or advantage for high scores on these tests so there is no incentive for them to cheat.
By comparing requests for extra time based on learning disability claims for both the STAR tests, which provide no particular benefit to the student taking the test, and for the college admissions tests (SAT and ACT), which do provide significant benefits to individual students who do well on them, the Auditor concluded that some students most likely were receiving extra time that was not deserved.
Generally, the ethnic distribution of students receiving extra time on STAR exams closely matched the ethnic distribution of students who were enrolled in special education classes because of identified learning disabilities. In addition, the ethnic distribution of students enrolled in special education classes because of identified learning disabilities was quite close to the ethnic distribution of all California students. However, the demographic distribution of California students receiving extra time on the SAT test was quite different from the demographic distribution of all students taking the SAT. For example, 38.4% of the California students taking the SAT identified themselves as white, but 55.5% of California students who received extra time on the SAT to compensate for learning disabilities identified themselves as white. Likewise, 10.8% of all California students taking the SAT declined to state their ethnic identity, while 25.7% of California students receiving extra time declined to state their ethnic identity.
Similarly, only 12% of all California students reporting a family income of greater than $100,000 took the SAT, while of those receiving extra time 28.7% reported a family income of greater than $100,000. California students who declined to state family income comprised 19.4% of the total taking the SAT. However, 35.4% of those receiving extra time declined to state family income.
The Auditor also found that there was a significant difference between private and public school students who received extra time on the SAT to compensate for learning disabilities. Students enrolled in private high schools were more than twice as likely to receive extra time regardless of family income level. Those private school students with family incomes greater than $100,000 were about three times as likely to receive extra time on the SAT as public school students with the same family income level.
The statistical results by themselves do not prove that larger numbers of children of the wealthy are receiving extra time on the SAT or ACT to which they are not entitled. However, the Auditor made a detailed review of “330 California students from 18 public schools, most of whom obtained special accommodations on standardized tests, and found the basis for the accommodations questionable in 60 cases”. This strongly suggests that at least 18% of those students receiving extra time were not really entitled to it.
The skewed ethnic distribution of students receiving extra time on the SAT and ACT tests also suggests that minority students with learning disabilities may not be receiving the extra help that they need. In part this may be because their parents are less likely to demand this kind of help from the schools.
In the view of the Irascible Professor both situations are intolerable. Students with genuine learning disabilities deserve to receive as much help as the schools reasonably can provide, regardless of ethnicity or income level. At the same time, it is unconscionable that some students who have no genuine learning disability are taking advantage of the system to receive an unfair advantage on college admission tests.
The whole issue of “learning disabilities” is a minefield. Over the years IP has worked with a small number of students who have been identified as “learning disabled”. In most cases the students involved had genuine learning problems such as dyslexia or other “processing” deficits. In some cases, however, the diagnosis was questionable. This was particularly true in cases of “attention deficit disorder” or “hyperactivity – attention deficit disorder”. Educators and psychologists often apply this label to students who seem reasonably intelligent, but who are not doing well in school.
The IP has encountered a few students whose ADD diagnoses were questionable. In one case, the student most likely had an anxiety disorder that was leading to poor test performance. In the other two cases there was evidence that the students were faking the disorder to obtain extra time on tests.
While the statistical level of the IP’s own data is too small to draw definitive conclusions they are in line with the results of the State Auditor, which suggest that some 10 to 20% of students claiming a “learning disability” may – in fact – not have one.
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