By: Mark Glennon*
Hey kids, want extra time on college entrance exams and tests in school? Just get an “accommodation.” It’s easy.
The problem, already absurd, is worsening. Though the national press has covered it, little attention has been paid in Illinois, where it’s particularly severe.
Many school districts now give special accommodations to 20% or more of their students based on the premise that they’re disabled in some way — attention-deficit issues, hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, dyscalcula and the like.
Some of those accommodations are legitimate, but numbers so high clearly indicate that cheaters abound. Worse, the accommodations traditionally have gone overwhelmingly to the wealthy. Only 1.6% of students at public schools in poorer districts get the break, though in Illinois, recent indications are that accommodations are becoming broadly more common.
The problem gained national attention earlier this year when the Wall Street Journal and New York Times published results of their national studies. Many more articles followed, though not in Illinois. According to the WSJ, at New Trier High School in Chicago’s North Shore and Weston High School in Connecticut, both affluent districts, a ridiculous 25% get accommodations. Newton North High School outside Boston is still worse at 33%.
“The boom began about five years ago,” according to the NYT, and got an extra jolt from the recent college admissions scandals that raised awareness of the ease of gaming the system.
Much of the problem stems from school psychologists and doctors freely handing out the diagnoses required for accommodations. “Get ACT Extra Time,” reads one blunt web advertisement from the Cognitive Assessment Group, reported the NYT.
The Journal quoted a New Trier counselor who said “the word is out and you go to so-and-so” for evaluations. But those diagnoses often will cost $5,000 to $10,000.
It took me only a few hours calling other parents to validate that. I quickly got the names of a couple doctors known to be generous with their diagnoses.
One New Trier mom openly described the process to me, which began at the request of her daughter – a very bright kid now at an Ivy League school. Among the questions the doctor asked: “Do you ever have to read something twice to understand it?” “Why, yes, I do,” she answered. The mom interrupted, saying that was because she always had her cellphone open, not because of a disability.
The doctor nevertheless gave the needed diagnoses, as well as an Adderall prescription. Her mother refused to let the young woman use it for an accommodation or use the Adderall, which is another dimension to the problem and a scandal in itself. Intended for attention deficit disorders, it’s widely abused to get an extra edge at test time.
You can see the cheaters, as well a those with legitimate disabilities, by looking at various websites on this subject. For example, a parent on one said he was “not upset by [his] daughter’s grades at all. She’s generally a good student. Just concerned that, while she has good organizational skills and is keeping up with schoolwork, the rigors of junior and senior-year coursework may be too much for her. The only support I can think of is extra time on tests.”
“You make me sick,” another parent answered — appropriately. “Your child has no academic problems and you are just gaming the system. Some of our kids have actual special needs and you are doing us all a disservice by giving true SN parents a bad name.”
My kids, who earlier attended New Trier, told similar stories. They often had six or seven kids in a class get extra test time – often top students with no apparent handicap. For students without a prescription, Adderall was readily available from other kids in the school cafeteria for $10 a pop. My daughter’s annoyance at the widespread abuse of accommodations and Adderall was among the reasons she left for a different school after her sophomore year.
But don’t think New Trier is unique in Illinois.
Even seven years ago, abuse of accommodations in wealthy school districts was common in Illinois, according to a Chicago Tribune report at the time, one of the few articles on the problem in our state. “Almost 1 in 5 students who took the crucial college entrance exam at affluent Highland Park, Deerfield and Lake Forest high schools got assistance during state testing,” the Tribune reported. “Dozens of those students scored in the 30s out of an ACT maximum of 36, raising questions about the edge some students are getting in the stiff competition to get into top colleges.”
Statewide, the percentage of Illinois test takers with accommodations was double the national average when the Tribune completed its report – about 10% of 11th-graders.
Now, however, accommodations are far more common. Illinois’ most recent Report Card shows 16% of public school students have Individualized Education Programs – “IEPs.” That’s up from 14% five years ago. Look through the individual school Report Cards and you’ll find many schools, even in poorer districts, approaching 30%. Students with IEPs don’t necessarily get extra time on tests, though most do.
I spoke to a sixth-grade teacher at a lower income school in rural Will County who said the problem is “out of control.” His school, he says, often bumps up against the upper limit of 30% set by the state for how many IEP students can be in one class. Many IEPs are for legitimate learning disabilities, he emphasized, but the problem is growth in the number of those that aren’t. Far too many students, he said, simply are being fooled about what will be expected of them when they are out of school.
In his school, he said, outside doctors and psychologists are not the source of overly generous diagnoses. Instead, the task is handled by school personnel.
That teacher also complained about the connection between accommodations and lax discipline. Under a 2015 law widely known as SB100, students with IEPs are shielded from tougher forms of discipline that other students face, including suspension and expulsion. Students with IEPs, he said, are usually the ones who are disruptive or even violent, yet no meaningful discipline can be imposed on them.
Many school administrators are no doubt inclined to let the problem persist. Higher average test scores make the school look good, and more state money flows to schools with more kids classified as disabled. That’s apparently true nationally. According to the Wall Street Journal, high schools themselves submit the great majority of accommodation requests.
The problem appears to be creeping into higher education, too, though the legal rules and nature of accommodations are different. Here is a list of “the 50 best disability friendly colleges and universities.”
Something has to be done. I use that gutless phrase deliberately because I don’t claim to have all the answers.
The first difficulty is distinguishing what’s legitimate from what’s not. I can’t do that. As the NYT said, “Some of the learning differences exist in diagnostic gray areas that can make it difficult to determine whether a teenager is struggling because of parental and school pressure or because of a psychological impairment.”
In calling around to other parents I know, I easily found ethical ones with a child getting an accommodation for what they honestly believe is a legitimate disability. Physical impairments, such as an eyesight problem or handwriting impairment, can be obvious examples, and some cognitive disorders are very real.
Second, there’s undoubtedly a growing notion that “everybody is doing it so it’s fair for me.” I don’t like that thinking and it makes the problem snowball, but it’s not any easy argument to dismiss.
Finally, the right to accommodations derives mostly from federal statutes, so fixing the legal source of the problem may be, at least partially, beyond Illinois’ control.
Certainly, a crackdown on lax diagnoses is in order. “Private mental health practitioners operate with limited oversight, either from school systems or from within their own professions,” according to the NYT.
Better information and data are needed. The United States Department of Education publishes numbers of students with 504 plans and the Illinois Department of Education publishes the numbers of IEP plans by school. But that’s not enough to get the full picture. Furthermore, the data available are for public schools only. The scope of the problem in private schools is entirely unknown.
Maybe strict time limits should be dropped entirely – just treat everybody as disabled. Some education professionals think that might be sensible, though I’m extremely skeptical.
What’s clear, however, is that the disparity in accommodations between rich and poor schools is appalling, and the system is being massively abused.
What will the students with accommodations do when they enter the workforce? Doctors in the E.R. can’t tell patients not to die yet because they need extra time to assess the problems. Accountants who bill by the hour can’t tack on more hours because they are slow. Reporters on deadline can’t tell their editors to wait. Other examples are endless.
A rude shock awaits students and parents who’ve cheated or exploited the gray areas of disability.
Our schools are enabling them.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.