The number of students who get extra time to complete the SAT because of a claimed learning disability has soared by more than 50% in recent years, with the bulk of the growth coming from exclusive private schools and public schools in mostly wealthy, white suburbs.
The predominance of rich, white teenage boys among those claiming disabilities troubles members of the College Board, which owns the examination. Their fear is that the accommodations, rather than helping those with real disabilities, have increasingly become a way of gaming the system--allowing privileged families to gain advantage on a high-stakes exam.
"We are concerned about people taking advantage of it who are not really qualified to, but have been smart enough to step around the rules," said College Board President Gaston Caperton. "And, secondly, that people who are not as [economically] advantaged have equal access to accommodations."
Demands for special accommodations--which schools usually approve based on a psychologist's recommendation or sometimes a doctor's note--are similarly on the increase on other high-stakes tests, such as those that involve admission to law or medical schools.
A Times analysis of data supplied by the College Board shows those taking advantage of special accommodations on the SAT--usually extra time--are disproportionately clustered in well-to-do pockets along the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.
More recently, the practice has spread west to similar wealthy, highly competitive communities in the Los Angeles area as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara and San Diego.
Last year, 47,000 SAT exams were given with special accommodations. The vast majority are not controversial. They involved students with well-documented learning disabilities. For example, a dyslexic teenager may get time and a half, or 4 1/2 hours, to plow through the three-hour test because he reads so slowly.
But a growing number of cases--hundreds and perhaps thousands--involved what one college official calls "upper-income game players" who believe extra time can provide a crucial boost in their scores.
"It is a way for rich white kids to create a minority niche for themselves," said Paul Kanarek, who runs SAT preparation classes in Southern California. "I don't see many kids from Compton getting these kinds of luxurious diagnoses."
Indeed, although only a tiny fraction--1.9%--of students nationwide got special accommodations for the SAT, the percentage jumps fivefold for students at New England prep schools. At 20 prominent Northeastern private schools, nearly one in 10 students received special treatment.
The percentage was nearly as high at a select group of private high schools in Southern California, such as Crossroads School in Santa Monica and Cate School near Santa Barbara. Public schools in some rich communities, such as Beverly Hills High and Torrey Pines High in La Jolla, also had percentages well above average.
In sharp contrast, an analysis of 10 inner-city high schools in the Los Angeles region, including Roosevelt, Garfield, Inglewood and Santa Ana, found that not a single one of 1,439 students who took the SAT got extra time or other accommodations.
"Something is out of whack," said Perry Zirkel, a Lehigh University professor of education law. Disabilities generally increase with poverty, he said, not with wealth. At the inner-city schools, 80% of the students were black or Latino, and two-thirds reported a family income of less than $30,000 a year.
Some Parents Shop for the Right Diagnosis
What does tend to increase with money is the ability of parents to be advocates for their children.
Well-off neighborhoods are also more permeated by the frenzy surrounding the SAT, the dreaded test that has taken on outsize importance as a steppingstone--or stumbling block--to the best colleges and thus, as the thinking goes, a life of prestige and prosperity.
The urgency often hits parents when a child has gotten a 3.8 grade- point average throughout high school and then comes home with what the family considers mediocre SAT scores. "Kids get lulled by grade inflation and then get smacked by reality with the SAT," said Bruce Poch, Pomona College's admissions director.
High school officials say parents then sometimes shop around among psychologists until they find one willing to write up a desired diagnosis. After that, they return to school to press their demands, occasionally with a disability advocate in tow to threaten legal action under antidiscrimination laws.
"When a parent walks in with a diagnosis from a physician saying, 'They've got this and this,' it's a very difficult thing not to make accommodations," said Jeffrey Davis, former principal of Coronado High School, which sits in a pricey beachfront San Diego area community.
"Even when schools are feeling confident" that the accommodation is unwarranted, "unless they are 100% sure, they don't want to risk any kind of litigation," he said.