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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.

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Old Spartan

As unfair as this trick is, this problem is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the entire college admissions process. Having just finished with my own four children going thru 8 or 9 applications over the last decade, and watching literally dozens of their friends, I have seen first hand how the system nationwide is rigged. You mention extra time for tests. How about kids taking the test three or four times, with expensive tutors each time in between spending thousand of dollars to boost up the ACT by a few points. Or the so called “tutors” who basically… Read more »

debtsor

“The average kid and parent in Chicago Heights or North Chicago or downstate Illinois don’t have any idea how the system is gamed.”

I think they know it’s gamed but they don’t need to know the specifics. Kind of like we all know Madigan is completely corrupt but we didn’t know he was funneling money to his fired former sexual harassing chief of staff or whatever through ComEd’s lobbyists.

In my previous comments I firmly opposed any preferences given during exams to somehow disadvantageous students. I was criticized for being heartless and not compassionate. I know that in Chicago one can get quality tutorial service for less than $50 per hour. Hence, parents spending thousands of dollars for getting doubtful doctor’s papers can spend their money better just to make their kids better prepared to exams. Those kids who know their stuff, but have difficulties in dealing with stress, can get professional help in this regard. Lastly, if parents cannot afford to pay, I would not mind my taxpayers… Read more »

debtsor

You just moved the goalposts. The issue was whether the young lady with ‘chemo brain’ deserved a little extra time to complete her exam. You said she was not.

Correct, I am for all extra help this young lady may need in order to pass tests on the same terms as everyone else.

Joan

This is horrible! Cheating by claiming a disability. It can’t get much worse. And why is Wirepoints again the only ones writing about this?

Jim Palermo

Like with most things in life, there are no absolutes here. Some children are deserving of extra time in their exams or completing school assignments due to medical or other conditions. My late daughter experienced ‘chemo brain’ while receiving treatment for leukemia. Kate’s ability to solve problems, multi-task and remain focused suffered during her treatment, though she remained a highly intelligent and quick-witted young woman throughout, earning admission to the University of Michigan with the help of an IEP and time accommodations. Had Kate lived, her career direction certainly would have been influenced by her condition. She was not going… Read more »

Giving an extra time at tests defeats the purpose. Schools are to prepare young people to perform real life tasks, when ability to act fast might be critical for their success in life, but in extreme cases my health or life might be in stake. I can understand that talents and mental predisposition are not given to us evenly. For these reasons, at least for me, studying some subjects took much more time and work than others. What is wrong with it? Lastly, most critical jobs in real life are usually under heavy stress. Learning how to deal with stress… Read more »

mqyl

I agree that this system doesn’t prepare the test-taker for responsible, analytical jobs in the working world where short deadlines to complete a task are commonplace. Furthermore, this person’s higher test score due to being allowed more time to take the test will be misleading to the prospective employer who will, unfortunately, find out only after hiring that person that he or she can’t cut it.

debtsor

I’ll give the kid with a legitimate handicap a break. I know someone who is very capable but legally blind. Got themselves an advanced degree and the government employer makes minor but much needed accommodations for the handicapped employee. They are a functioning member of society earning a decent income, this person is married, has a family. But if it were up to you, the blind guy would be on the street begging because he couldn’t find a job to support his family. But a little bit of accommodations that literally causes no disruption to anyone created another productive and… Read more »

Astonished

How is your position different in essence (not degree) from saying that blind people should be given the opportunity to earn a pilot’s license? I’m afraid you’re using anecdote to argue policy. If your blind friend can produce value for a firm such that the firm is justified in providing accommodations, why would the firm’s managers refuse? If the firm is private, the owners are free to hire people who are literally an economic drain, if that’s their desire. The problem Mr. K. cites is that when A, B, and C vote to make D accommodate E, it’s tantamount to… Read more »

Giving an extra time at tests defeats the purpose of testing. Schools are not the abstractive art. They prepare young people to real life not scholling is not for teIt should prove that a young person can perform certain tasks in the given time. The school is not

Astonished

Everything everywhere is being corrupted in the name of “equality.”

If one group’s members cannot “keep up,” because it’s believed SINFUL to attribute this to the actual people involved, the scapegoat is one “-ism” or another, so simply tipping the scales by force (allowing extra time on a test, compelling quotas for admissions or hiring, etc.) is deemed MORAL.

Once your premises (beliefs) are false, everything that follows is false, too. We live in FalseWorld.

debtsor

Oh silly you! Schools don’t exist to prepare young people for real life! They exist to indoctrinate your children with ideology! Education and achievement is secondary to indoctrination. If children were supposed to be educated, then they’d actually be learning to read, write and do math at or near their grade levels. Schools fail miserably at that. But now with the new laws they will all know by 5th grade who Harvey Milk is…you know, as the author of the law says, to prevent bullying…

It looks like that this comment was placed by me accidentally. I touched a screen one time too many when writing a comment that is posted just a few minutes later. My apologies.

Astonished

This is far from new. A neighbor, employed as a Special Ed elementary school teacher, got her own son (who was as average a kid as you could find) an IEP…not that it made much difference to his now-early-30’s-slacker life path.) At a nearby intersection I could stand up and count FIVE places to gamble without moving, not counting the ability to “play the numbers game” on IL’s lottery smartphone app. Gaming the system is simply another slice of the endemic corruption of society today. Soon legal weed will add even more to Illinois becoming “It’s A Wonderful Life’s” POTTERSVILLE,… Read more »

DantheMan

Liberal, progressive values…everyone is some kind of victim and everyone else must accomodate. To question someones status is insensitive or racist. Illinois problems are not simply financial. The state is messed up at its core.

Astonished

“Progressive ‘values'” are a religion. “Universalism” holds as its sacraments that (1) All People Are The Same (so differences in outcome are due to sin, AKA racism/sexism/homophobia/etc.) and (2) Resources are Unlimited, so that all possible actions MUST be done, no matter the cost, to equalize outcomes. A Cargo Cult is defined by the belief that creating the appearance of something will cause the underlying essence of that something to come into being. It is a rejection of reality as it appears, in favor of expecting beliefs to literally create reality downstream. Race- and Sex-based quotas (defined or vague, it… Read more »

debtsor

Confession of one’s past transgressions and repentance of the same on Twitter (the public square for the progressives) is also required of anyone who has been caught sinning in the past, even if at the time, the act was not a sin. Indulgences are buying carbon credits and offsets, and good deeds (like virtue signaling, preaching) can even offset current sinful behavior. Donations to the hate group Southern Poverty Law Center are acceptable in lieu of preaching too. Self-Flagellation these days is hating one’s own race or religion as not being woke enough. As for our future, I’m not sure.… Read more »