The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity
Higher Education Admissions and Testing

The Test from Hell by Kathryn Olney

The Test From Hell
by Kathryn Olney

The SAT has been called racist, classist and sexist. Some educators say it doesn’t predict how anyone will do in college, let alone the real world. And, as one mother learned, it can also block kids with learning disabilities from ever achieving their goals.


The SAT is indelible. You may have forgotten what grade you got in high school history, but chances are your SAT scores are burned in your memory. Today, the escalating competition to get into college has only added to the pressure; five years after 9/11, National Public Radio reported that high school kids in Washington, D.C., were more worried about their SAT scores than about terrorism.

Yet almost as long as the test has meant something, its validity has been challenged. Researchers have found that it's skewed to favor white kids, kids with money who are coached in test-taking strategies, and boys. The new essay section is widely believed to be graded subjectively and to penalize kids who take a creative approach in their writing. To top it off, many experts don't feel the SAT predicts success in college or in a career. Yet high school grade inflation -- in which schools routinely graduate 12th-graders with 4.5 GPAs, or A++ grades -- leaves admissions offices feeling like any measurement is better than none at all. So the test remains firmly in place, a lock on the gates of good colleges that can only be opened with high scores.

Of all those who worry about the test, perhaps none do so with more urgency than the 10 to 20 percent of the student population estimated to have a language-based learning disability -- along with their parents. If students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are included, the estimated size of this "learning different," or LD, group grows to 25 percent. The term LD allows for a big tent, taking in diagnoses from autism to Asperger's syndrome and beyond; it is said that Albert Einstein, Steve Wozniak, Winston Churchill and Charles Schwab are just a few who would be diagnosed as LD today. These kids don't "test well." Given only the usual allotment of time and the usual pencil, many of them have virtually no chance to show how bright they are. That's why many LD kids are given accommodations during testing as early as elementary school. By the time of the all-important SAT, many have thick files testifying to their special needs.

Acknowledging that fact, decades ago, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which is a wealthy, nonprofit examination board that manages standardized tests, including the SAT, began granting certain qualified LD students extra time, and later a computer and other accommodations to use during the now 3-hour, 45-minute exam. The policy seemed like a win-win, because LD kids are, as a rule, the only kids who score better across the board on the SAT with such accommodations. Many of them do much better. For example, when my middle child, Dana, who has been considered LD since the second grade, took the Secondary School Scholastic Admission Test (SSAT, also developed by the College Board) in eighth grade, she scored in the low-average range when asked to finish it in the regular time. When she was given 50 percent extra time, her scores shot to the 98th percentile. Eventually, by 2003, about 32,000 students a year were being granted some form of accommodations to complete the SAT. The College Board, which owns and developed the SAT, as well as helped to create the ETS in 1947, created hope for many parents and children by opening the door with accommodations.

But now the board is closing the door. Since 2003, the percentage of applications that are denied has quietly and rapidly risen by 25 percent, even though the number of test takers who are identified with legitimate learning disabilities has grown. A mere 2 percent take the test with accommodations, contrasted with the 10 to 20 percent of kids who probably need them. The board's decision has fueled anger and frustration in the Bay Area, where parents of LD students -- and the child psychologists, educational specialists, behavioral pediatricians and school counselors who support them -- are a force. They have carried the fight to the College Board, engaging in a case-by-case bureaucratic duel.


These battles, which leave their combatants frustrated and often defeated, should trouble all children and parents. The board is a not-for-profit company with a secretive reputation, and in fact getting answers out of it -- as either a parent or a journalist -- is very difficult. Since 2002, when testing for all kids began ramping up because of the No Child Left Behind Act (which also is under fire for not taking learning differences into account), the board and ETS have more than doubled their staff and revenues, and they are by far the nation's leading tester at all levels. (The College Board is a half-billion dollar a year operation, whose executives make $500,000 per year. The company is diversifying by increasingly using the SAT as a screening test as early as middle school, marketing their own curriculum and opening new high schools.) This latest chapter in the board's efforts to maintain the SAT's aura of legitimacy suggests that in addition to all its other purported problems, the test -- and indirectly the colleges that rely so heavily on it -- has no interest in the variety of ways young people learn.

In the last 10 or so years, new brain-imaging technologies have dramatically increased neuroscientists' understanding of how the brain operates, how LD kids' brains work and how those differences are best addressed in the classroom and during testing. The simplest conclusion is that not all of us can learn the same way, at the same rate. Every prehistoric tribe needed some highly focused, competitive people to do bold things, such as hunt and explore, whereas thoughtful, dreamy creative types were needed to analyze less-obvious factors in the environment, such as which foods were poisonous and which plants had medicinal properties. These days, folks who don't fit into the hunter role are often the ones we call "learning different."

Failing to support any large swath of children -- those who are poor, whose first language isn't English or who are stuck in ailing schools -- has serious repercussions, but ignoring the needs of LD kids might have the broadest impact. By some estimates, 85 percent of the incarcerated population probably falls in the category of LD children who never got services. Even LD kids from middle-class and affluent families who don't get intervention in school often end up being another kind of huge drain on society, by underachieving and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

If they get concerted help and get to college, on the other hand, many LD kids do better and better over time, because they're finally able to study what really interests them. As former San Francisco behavioral pediatrician Robert Verhoogen (he retired to Oregon last year) quips, "ADHD kids don't do boring." Once they are free to work on their passions -- Woz on his Mac; my Dana on her Java programming and also another obsession, Japanese -- they often excel. People who have Asperger's are famous for excelling in narrow concerns. One expert told me that he'd be hard-pressed to find an engineering professor who didn't have Asperger's, ADHD or some other LD. But to earn that freedom to focus in college and beyond, an LD student needs a childhood full of interventions -- and a strong SAT score.

A senior in high school, Dana is a bright if absent-minded-professor type who does better visualizing and building a Web page than writing an essay with a timer ticking. She was first identified in second grade at San Francisco's Rooftop School as having "slow processing," mild dyslexia and attention deficit disorder/inattentive type. For reasons based in the frontal lobe of her brain, which scientists now know regulates attention, initiative, persistence and awareness of time, she simply takes longer to think about things. In a traditional school situation, she is a square peg in a round hole and sincerely struggles. It's a long story, as you can imagine, but nevertheless the upshot is that with the help of costly tutoring starting at age 6, her own plucky determination and two parents who've been able to advocate on her behalf, she has not drowned in failure.

When she was in second grade, we shelled out $2,000-plus to have a private version of the crucial Individual Education Plan (IEP) -- a test of your child's problems, if any, and what interventions might help. It advised us to hire a specialist twice a week to help Dana learn to fare better in the classroom. And so it began: Over the years, private tutors taught her strategies for decoding words and math problems, how to use special computer programs to help her get organized and even how to make her own case with administrators that she needed extra time on a test or the use of a computer. (Back then, such tutoring cost $80 an hour; now that rate would be considered a bargain.) It helped that in third grade she attended Charles Armstrong School, the now-$26,000-a-year Belmont school that only enrolls kids with dyslexia and other learning differences. In high school, she was boosted by the tiny, private Marin School, a high school with a 7-to-1 student-teacher ratio that works especially well for LD kids.

By the time Dana applied to college, we'd drained the funds we'd tried to save for a private university, so the stakes had grown. By counterbalancing her hard-earned B grades with the very high SAT and SAT II scores she is capable of, she was conceivably in line to be accepted to the competitive chemical engineering departments at her dream schools: UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara or Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. That would be an incredible accomplishment for a child who'd needed help to simply learn how to concentrate, but it seemed within the realm of possibility. With accommodations, Dana could be a poster child for an SAT that takes individual kids' needs to heart.

The latest research indicates that making the test untimed would leave most kids' scores unchanged while lifting the scores of many LD kids.

We'd sent the College Board a 2-inch-high stack of paper showing that she had qualified for such help since second grade. In today's charged climate, we were lucky to have our long, pricey paper trail of testing. Kids diagnosed after they enter high school are doomed -- the College Board is so convinced that their parents are trying to pull one over on it that it usually throws out such requests.

But in spring of 2006, I chewed my lip as I looked over Dana's shoulder while she read her letter from ETS. Her application had been rejected. The decision was stunning given her decade-long history in the LD world, but, I learned, not given the latest numbers. That year, I'd learn later, the board summarily dropped acceptances by 20 percent. It was rejecting scores of cases it used to accept. It had offered no rationale why. In any event, her dreams appeared to be headed down the tubes.

Over the next several months, as I put my work on hold to deluge ETS with calls and documentation in a Hail Mary attempt to appeal the decision, I heard from a number of experts that the rash of rejections represents a college-application perfect storm. The number of recognized cases of learning differences is exploding, along with the volume of kids trying to get into college. What's creating the storm, though, is the College Board's reaction. The board, says nationally respected learning specialist Mel Levine, the author of "All Kinds of Minds," about children's different learning styles, has been an "increasing paranoia about being seen as giving too many breaks to middle- and upper-middle-class kids." And, as all sides acknowledge, largely white and affluent high schools have historically won a disproportionate number of accommodations.

The board's stated worry is that well-off parents, trying to give their kids an edge, are resorting to "accommodations shopping" -- persuading or bullying an expert into documenting that their child had a previously undiscovered learning difference. No one can say how often that happens, or why, since extra time doesn't help a student unless they have a learning disability. But the board isn't rejecting only those candidates. It is also cutting back on accommodations for many LD students who have long paper trails proving they benefit from them. Says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest. org, a group based in Cambridge, Mass., that lobbies for fair educational testing: "Kids with legitimate needs are not being treated fairly or legally."

Friends urged me to get the advice of educational specialist Pat Henery, often called the best in the city, to the tune of $150 per hour. The week I met with her, she'd heard from seven parents of kids who had been turned down by ETS. Four students from one private Marin high school were denied extra time or computer use despite their inability to write in longhand legibly or efficiently, a condition called dysgraphia. Some of the "Marin four" parents had hired a lawyer, JoAnne Simon, a New York attorney who specialized in fighting the College Board, and her phone, too, was ringing off the hook.

The conclusion we all reached was that the board's decision-making had stopped making sense. One school, for instance, accidentally sent two evaluations to the board for the same child, one with his middle name and the other without it. One request for accommodations was granted and the other denied. Psychiatrists and counselors I spoke to who'd actually managed to get ahold of specialists on the ETS's decision-making board, had come away awestruck by the agency's lack of knowledge on learning differences. Said Wendy Ullman, a counselor at the College of Marin: "People on the review panel were far less up-to-date on the current research than I am."

In denying applications, the board often said a new IEP should be every three years, and hadn't been. "It's a ridiculous, expensive requirement," Levine told me. "A kid doesn't grow out of LD. He may get better at reading, learn tricks to keep up, and find subjects that use his special skills, but there's no need to prove over and over that he is dyslexic or has ADHD." And most specialists believe that for most kids, by high school, the IEP tests themselves are, as one puts it, "ridiculous." "They're unscientific and have never been validated," Levine told me.

In battling back, parents have had to put their own jobs on the back burner to meet with learning specialists, dig up old documents and sit on hold with the College Board. My husband and I had to take out more college loans for our older daughter to cover the expenses of additional testing as well. When I talked to Schaeffer of FairTest.com, he said, "The squeaky-wheel approach sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Same with hiring a lawyer. That's because ETS's typical defense with both parents and lawyers is to run the clock. They have all the time in the world and half a billion dollars in revenue, and most people don't. We tell people to call the Civil Rights office at the Department of Justice or Education and copy the College Board on every piece of paper that you send them."

That's the tack Ullman took. Her job, coincidentally, entails setting up accommodations for students. She's also sat on boards when unwarranted requests are appealed by students. So she has sat on both sides of the table. When the board denied computer use for her son despite a neurological condition that makes writing by hand nearly impossible for him, she contacted the Department of Education's Civil Rights office, which agreed to take her case. "ETS is just getting brazen in its noncompliance," she says. "A lot of kids with LD are really, really smart, but they can't do their best."

Most educators, including Suzanne Schutte of San Francisco's Urban School, feel that the real way to level the playing field is for ETS to give the test untimed, over two days, and with an ETS-supplied computer. People used to think that the untimed SAT was a poorer predictor of how kids will do in college. "But it turns out the only thing the timed SAT predicts is how they will do their freshman year," says Levine, which he argues ultimately has no bearing. The latest research indicates that making the test untimed would leave most kids' scores unchanged, while lifting the scores of many LD kids and also those of one other important group: girls taking the math portion, who do much better when the arbitrary time constraints are lifted. Yet the very flush board has opposed the untimed test because it would raise the cost of administering it. "Eighty percent of kids who apply for accommodations get them," Steve Pereira, the executive director of the College Board's Services for Students with Disabilities, told me. But his figure only tells half of the story. Many more students, such as Ullman's son and the "Marin four," receive one accommodation, such as extra time, but not a second one that they need just as badly, if notworse, such as use of a computer.

The ETS has a point that some parents can afford the costly effort to get accommodations and some can't. To help level that economic playing field, ETS could more aggressively hire and send learning-difference experts into low-income high schools. It could spend some of its energy and vast resources educating and helping less affluent kids and their parents and counselors through the maze of IEP testing, and the tricky steps involved in applying for accommodations. But it hasn't. San Francisco education specialist Jane McClure has found in her travels around the country that in less-affluent districts, college guidance counselors were unfamiliar with the process, didn't have the needed forms or had no students receiving accommodations. "The board is more focused on capitalizing on the college admissions and national testing frenzy, and keeping a lock on its role as a gatekeeper," says Schaeffer. "They intentionally make the application for accommodations very complex to discourage schools and students from applying."

The fact is that the SAT, like life, is not fair. In wealthier communities, students routinely get years of private coaching to lift their scores; in poorer ones, students, through no fault of their own, walk into the exam with minimal preparation. As long as the test remains mandatory for desirable schools and the ETS continues to view itself as steward of a functioning process, no one can remedy biases as structural as that. In 2001, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson proposed that UC abandon its use of the test. "Applicants for higher education should be assessed on the basis of their achievements in high school, in the context of the opportunities available to them," he argued. "Standardized tests are fair and useful admissions tools when they assess what students have actually learned in school -- not how they rate on an ill-defined measure of aptitude or intelligence." Since the UC system is ETS's biggest client in the country, the SAT made adjustments in the test, by adding the essay-writing section and focusing more on what high schools teach and less on reasoning questions, and UC backed off. But in the process, they made it almost four hours long, so that LD kids are taking a nearly seven-hour test, if they get the minimum accommodations.

With extra time she went from barely scoring 500 on the timed practice PSAT to scoring nearly 700 on the SATThe LD situation has prompted new despair. Henery is spearheading a broad-based Bay Area coalition of pediatricians, psychologists, educational therapists, speech and language pathologists and parents, called Opt Out. They hope to convince Bay Area high schools to begin to accept a few students without the SSAT. "We've decided that if we can build a groundswell at the high school level, it will be easier to sell the idea to public and private California colleges." FairTest has toyed with the idea of a class-action lawsuit against the board with Oakland's Disability Rights Advocates, the organization that first sued SAT in order to remove the asterisk that disclosed to colleges that a student had taken the test under non-traditional conditions. Right now, it maintains a list of (mostly) private colleges on its Web site that don't require the SAT.

As for Dana, the final piece of paper that seemed to turn the tide for her at ETS was, ironically, the IEP her public elementary school had issued when she was in second grade. Silly me, I'd assumed the board would notice that it was just a copy of the private testing we'd paid for ourselves and had already sent in. Apparently, whatever its source, a public school IEP smacks less of "diagnosis shopping." After I sent it, she was given 50 percent extra time. Like the "Marin four," she was still denied the use of the computer, but we felt lucky, at that point, with what she got.

In the fall, Dana will be enrolling at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the sixth-ranked engineering school in the country with a master's program. With extra time, she went from barely scoring 500 on the timed practice PSAT to scoring nearly 700 on the SAT. Competitive Cal Poly admits purely on SAT scores and high school GPA; it doesn't look at letters of recommendation. If we hadn't spent six months fighting the College Board's initial denial, Cal Poly -- and California -- might very well have one less prospective female engineer. What does that tell you about the SAT?

Kathryn Olney is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 17, 2007

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updated February 28, 2012