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Why The College Admissions Scandal Hurts Students With Disabilities

Mar 14, 2019
Originally published on March 16, 2019 5:58 pm

Students with disabilities and disability rights advocates are among those angry — and feeling victimized — after the arrests in the college admissions and bribery scandal Tuesday.

"Stories like this are why we continue to see backlash to disability rights laws," Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement.

Federal authorities say that those involved in the bribery scheme took advantage of testing accommodations on the SAT and ACT meant for students with disabilities.

Here's how: Over the last eight years, a man named William "Rick" Singer worked with parents, college coaches and test administrators "to use bribery and other forms of fraud to secure the admission of students to colleges and universities," according to a Justice Department investigation. It was all to get students into elite colleges like Yale, Georgetown and Stanford.

Singer had his clients "seek extended time for their children on college entrance exams, which included having the children purport to have learning disabilities in order to obtain the required medical documentation," the Justice Department found.

And Singer told families that this was common practice. In 2018, he told a parent over the phone, "What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don't even have issues, but they're getting time. The playing field is not fair." (That conversation was included in an affidavit filed Tuesday.)

Understandably, parents and educators who work with students with disabilities are outraged.

"This hurts every individual with a learning disability," Beth McGaw, the president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America said in a statement.

At many levels of education, students with disabilities — such as dyslexia or ADHD — can receive extra time on standardized tests. It's one of a number of ways that make tests accessible to all students.

To gain extra time on the SAT, for example, families must provide documentation of a student's disability — and why they need the extra minutes to have a fair chance. The ACT also requires families to submit proof of disability, like a diagnostic test from a doctor.

Often, families go through their child's school — which may already provide the student with assistance.

"Accommodations are about leveling the playing field and not about bestowing an unfair advantage," the Learning Disabilities Association of America wrote in a statement.

In Singer's scheme, the Justice Department says, families would send students to test centers where he had bribed test administrators to give students answers or correct their tests. (Students granted extended time often take their tests in a room without other students.)

"In many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for the cheating," the Department says.

The ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT, both say they have cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation.

"We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test takers who are honest and play by the rules," the College Board said in a statement.

The ACT said their company is "committed to ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they've learned in school through their hard work. No student should have an unfair advantage over any other."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's been a lot of coverage of the federal charges filed this week against wealthy parents who allegedly bribed their children's way into elite colleges. One detail that didn't get so much attention - some parents were accused of inappropriately taking advantage of accommodations meant for students with learning disabilities. Students who struggle with learning or attention issues, like dyslexia or ADHD, rely on those accommodations like extra time to take a test. And so, for these kids, the revelations are especially hurtful. Clare Lombardo of the NPR Ed team spoke to some of them.

CLARE LOMBARDO, BYLINE: Isabella Johnson is a premed student at the University of California, Davis. She faces a few different challenges when it comes to learning.

ISABELLA JOHNSON: Dyslexia, dysgraphia, a visual processing disorder and an executive functioning disorder.

LOMBARDO: One big problem is her handwriting.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) It's pretty illegible, and I went to about two years of handwriting school when I was a child.

LOMBARDO: She struggles with reading, too, and some days are worse than others.

JOHNSON: I've had times where I've read something five times, read a sentence five times, and I still don't remember what's written there.

LOMBARDO: Johnson and students like her sometimes get accommodations, support in the classroom or on tests. She gets to take a bit longer on exams because she processes information more slowly while reading. But she's furious over this admission scandal and afraid that it'll only add to the stigma of having a learning or attention issue.

JOHNSON: I've heard people tell to my face, oh, I don't think that ADHD actually exists. I don't think that learning disabilities are actually a thing.

LOMBARDO: But a successful diagnosis and the accommodations that go with it can help students succeed, and many resent the implication that, somehow, they're getting a break.

BETH MCGAW: To get a diagnosis of a learning disability, it's a pretty complicated and rigorous process.

LOMBARDO: That's Beth McGaw, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Her own son has an auditory processing disorder.

MCGAW: If there are things that are not done above board, it's very concerning because it affects all those diagnosed with learning disabilities. And it can add undue hurdles and make it more difficult for them.

LOMBARDO: When Isabella Johnson was applying for college, she took the ACT specifically because she needed access to a computer, and the SAT wouldn't grant her that accommodation.

JOHNSON: I needed to be able to type my essay just to ensure that the people who were proctoring and reading the exam were able to read what I had written down.

LOMBARDO: When she thinks about accommodations for students with learning or attention issues, Johnson thinks about an image she saw while she was in high school in Oakland, Calif. It had three boys on it.

JOHNSON: One who was incredibly short, one who's about medium height and one who is very, very tall.

LOMBARDO: And the image had two different words - equality and justice.

JOHNSON: Equality meant that every single boy was given a box to stand on so that they could see over the crowd. But justice means giving the shortest boy two boxes and the middle one one and the tall one none so that each one can stand on equal footing.

LOMBARDO: Johnson says students like her aren't asking for anything extra.

JOHNSON: We're not the tall boy standing on a box. We're the short one that needs two boxes instead of one to make sure that we have the same opportunities as everybody else.

LOMBARDO: Claire Lombardo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON VAN ETTEN SONG, "JUST LIKE BLOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.