Special accommodations for standardized tests should be tightened

BY SAMUEL CLEARY | MAY 08, 2012 6:30 AM

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There's long been a formidable degree of controversy surrounding the legitimacy of special testing accommodations for standardized exams, especially those with such weighty implications, such as college-entrance exams. 

Special testing accommodations are issued for those with special needs and learning disabilities, and as such disorders as ADHD become increasingly common in adolescents, an increasingly high number of students are receiving extended time on tests such as the ACT.

More students have learning disabilities, more students are receiving testing accommodations, more learning-disabled students are receiving high scores. These seem to be contradicting realities. So while I'm not a professional, I have a few questions of my own.  

I won't delve into the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of diagnostic evaluations for disorders such as ADD and ADHD, though it's certainly cause for concern. But Iowa should look to Illinois as an example of what to avoid, and the process by which students receive special testing accommodations should be re-evaluated and revised.

A recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune finds that an "unusually large" number of students in Illinois public high schools received extra time or extra help to improve scoring on the ACT. On an even more unusual note, top scorers at some of Illinois' most reputable public schools also belong to the ranks of those receiving these special accommodations.

For one, why are students with learning disabilities scoring well above the national average? I'm all for equal opportunity for students, but a positive correlation between students who are learning-disabled and students who score high on tests such as the ACT seems like a point for suspicion.

Charles Fox, a special-education attorney in the Chicago area, told the Chicago Tribune that when it comes to the ACT, scoring in the 30s (out of a possible 36) is unlikely when it comes to students eligible for testing accommodations.

Yet, the investigation into Illinois public records shows that at least 1 out of 10 juniors received extra time on their ACT in 2011. 

What's more startling are the socioeconomic implications of the recent trend.

While nationally ranked, predominantly white, suburban schools such as New Trier provided 170 juniors with special testing accommodations on the ACT, at many Chicago public schools, no students received accommodations — and many of the inner-city schools that did boasted no scores above the national ACT average of 21.

There's an obvious trend here. Prominent, renowned, and predominantly white public schools in affluent suburbs have higher numbers of students receiving testing accommodations. Lower-income areas with less-than-stellar public schools have far fewer students.

For one, students who receive special testing accommodations should be recorded and reported. The ACT policy, for instance, states that certain details about your test will not be shared with the colleges to which an applicant applies.

With such high numbers of students receiving accommodations (not to mention the increasing correlation of those students with higher test scores), whether or not a student received assistance should be reported to the colleges, for instance, to which those students apply.

On another note, the state should increase funding for initiatives at the public-school level that test students for learning disabilities in order to eliminate socioeconomic lines of division that seem to suggest preferential treatment for privileged students with the financial means of being tested for such disabilities. There should not exist such a distinct difference between not only the scores of varying socioeconomic districts, but also between the number of students who receive accommodations.

What's more, ACT and standardized testing companies similar to it should tighten their stipulations for who receives accommodations and who does not. By making it harder to test under special circumstances, such accommodations will be limited to those with legitimately debilitating learning disabilities.

When it comes to the competitiveness of college-acceptance rates and the degree to which it is difficult to distinguish oneself from classmates on the academic stage, the success and future of students often depend on their standardized test scores. In order to avoid controversy like that of Illinois, Iowa should take steps to ensure that the circumstances under which special accommodations are issued for standardized tests are actually standardized.

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