Ah, those SATs and ACTs…and the story that just won’t disappear

It seems that it’s always college application time and with that, the SATs or ACTs. If you’re the parent of a high schooler in the throes of applying to college who just took the SAT or ACT — or is about to do so — did you know that some students get more time for these anxiety-provoking “standardized” tests than do others? Yes, it’s true. It’s a story that must be told. It’s a story about two powerful organizations that affect real students and parents.

Here’s the story. Indeed, some students get “extended time,” called “accommodations” on these tests, allowing them 50% or 75% or more time than their fellow test-takers.

“Accommodations” are changes in how a test is administered, designed for some student groups (namely, students with disabilities or English language learners). Accommodations are supposed to “level the playing field” for them, giving them the same opportunity as others have to demonstrate what they know and can do. So far, so good. Yet, “accommodations” have been dogged by two important unanswered questions. First, are they fair to others? Second, in reality, are they actually “modifications” that go beyond leveling the playing field and actually “change the game,” creating a different non-standardized and extra-timed test for some? In testing jargon, are these accommodations, in reality, standard accommodations or non-standard accommodations that are also called modifications?

How can this be, you may ask. As I see it, if we’re going to continue to use these tests in the competitive college admissions process, we need to finally get answers to questions and concerns about “extended time” accommodations.

What’s the deal here?

Back in 2003, the SAT and ACT decided to drop any notice to test scores users (such as colleges, schools, and parents) when a test was given under nonstandard conditions, such as extended time. Henceforth, nobody would know whose scores were standardized and whose were not! Since real-world experience tells us that it is the time limit of these tests that is often the very factor that produces test anxiety and lower scores on these pivotal tests, this is a big deal.

Recently, Luke Egan wrote in MerionWest that 18% of students at his high school got extended time! A huge percentage, as back in 2003, the College Board, the SAT’s official developer, assured us that it was keeping a lid on extended time at 2%.

“The most polarizing issue in my high school’s community didn’t relate to religion or politics. It was the issue of extra time. Extra time, which is often given for… standardized tests, typically offers students who qualify 1.5 to double the amount of time to complete an assessment as peers who don’t qualify. While extra time may be given for a host of reasons, it is usually given when a student is diagnosed with a processing difference…. The problem, however, is when families take advantage of this accommodation for students who don’t actually need it.”

Anecdotally, I’ve heard of private schools where that percentage is around 40% and of public schools where it is 12% and higher. Data about how many students actually use SAT or ACT accommodations is hard to come by, yet it’s clear that percentages have crept up since 2003, when we were told that they were 2% of students. Now perhaps 3 to 5% of test takers nationally get such accommodations, broad percentages that hide troubling inequalities — well-off students use them far more than their poorer peers. Even before 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that a state audit confirmed the reality: a disproportionate share of affluent students were granted extended time. These days, just look on line! An industry of evaluators and others has grown to service this expensive quagmire of inequality and questionable practices. Periodically, since 2003, stories about the use and misuse of these “accommodations” have appeared on ABC News, in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The North Jersey Media Group, Education Week, Education Next, and other publications. For a brief moment, people get agitated and angry about this and then the story dies down again.

When will we reach a tipping point?

Yet, as troubling as these trends may be, I don’t focus on them. My concern is with the tests. Not the test-takers. Seeking answers to the College Board and the ACT has been woefully disappointing.

Here’s what we need to know to assure ourselves that these tests are still standardized and that these “accommodations” are fair.

First, what are these tests designed to measure? Is it (a) student aptitude or intelligence, what a student knows or can do (or whatever is in either developer’s secret sauce) within a limited time or is it (2) these skills, knowledge and/or aptitude regardless of the timing? That is, are time limits fundamental to what the test purports to measure? Is extended time like getting a larger font for an eye exam or is it something else?

Second, since an “accommodation” changes how a “standardized test” is administered to a student, the question becomes whether the accommodation is standard — maintaining test validity — or non-standard — modifying the test so it no longer measures what it purports to measure and, in reality, becomes a different test. In short, is extended time an “accommodation” that maintains test validity or is it a “modification” that fundamentally alters and invalidates the test?

Third, these powerful organizations have a choice. The College Board and/or the ACT can decide if timing is fundamental to its test. If so, then extended time is a modification, a non-standard accommodation that invalidates that very test. On the other hand, if timing is not fundamental, extended time is a standard accommodation that maintains test validity.

Pretty basic. Which is it? After all these years, we still don’t know.

So long as so much rides on colleges’ use of these tests about individual students, the public should be have confidence that they meet the most basic requirement of standardization — namely, that even with a standard accommodation, the test still measures what it purport to measure and is still valid. Alas, do we still have such confidence?

Fourth, if an accommodation is standard, no notice of its use is needed. For example, a student’s use of glasses when taking the SAT or ACT need not be noted. However, if an accommodation is non-standard, notice about its use is vital.

Parents, students, and the rest of us need to know. Is timing on the SAT or ACT fundamental to what either purports to measure? If it is fundamental, then shame on us for continuing to pay so dearly in dollars, stress, and angst for the test, even as some results are no longer standardized and valid — but we don’t know which!

On the other hand, if time is not fundamental, a different and obvious question emerges. Given the inequality, angst, expense, and apparent misuse of this avenue for test taking that has grown since 2003, why does the College Board and the ACT still time any student?

The College Board and ACT need to answer that question. Finally.

Parents and students have a right to know. As do colleges, schools, and the general public. Speaking of timing, it is high time!

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA, has written extensively about accommodations as a public-schools attorney, author, former teacher, and concerned citizen. Her latest book is Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Her website http://schoollawpro.com includes “Disabling the SAT,” the story about what happened in 2003 when the SAT and ACT decided to no longer “flag” tests that were given under non-standard conditions.