Attention deficit disorder, which slips neatly into the Section 504 category, has become a hot diagnosis. That angers some specialists.
"Just because a kid isn't paying attention doesn't mean it's ADD," said Dr. David Velkoff, medical director of the Drake Institute of Behavioral Medicine in West Los Angeles. "It's misdiagnosed; it's become a wastebasket term."
In an attempt to relieve pressure on school officials, the College Board set up a national panel five years ago to review requests for extended time from students who have no history of disabilities or testing accommodations in school.
The panel of psychologists and other experts denied 82% of the 670 appeals last year, either for insufficient documentation or inappropriate diagnoses. With such a high rejection rate, the number of appeals to the College Board panel has begun to drop from its peak of 850. Instead, parents simply apply pressure directly to high schools, concluding, correctly, that school officials are more likely to cave in to parental pressure.
"That is where the loophole still is," said McClure, the educational psychologist in San Francisco, who also sits on the College Board panel. "If the kids get the psychological testing done and the school accepts it, then they do not have to go through us."
Pressure to do well on the SAT has helped create a cottage industry of educational testing experts, who charge families between $700 and $2,500 for psychological testing and written diagnoses.
Private college counselors say they routinely recommend psychological work-ups if PSAT or SAT scores are not stellar. Tutors who run SAT prep classes say they often see parents passing around the names of psychologists who will get them what they want.
Testing Firm Insists on Documentation
The private company that offers the ACT, a popular alternative to the SAT, has been countering the demand for accommodations by insisting on documentation for any disability diagnosed within a year of taking the test--even if the high school has signed off on the diagnosis. Since the new policy was adopted, requests for accommodations have begun dropping.
But the ACT is primarily taken in the Midwest, where competition to get into top colleges and universities is less ferocious than on either coast.
Beth Robinson, the College Board official who runs the group's review board, says that there is no plan to adopt a similar policy for the SAT.
"It would raise holy hell," she said. Can extra time significantly boost SAT scores? Research shows it does--often by 100 points, a substantial gain that could make the difference between acceptance or rejection at many selective colleges and universities.
Wayne Camera, the College Board's research director, cautions that the gains for some students could be as small as 25 points. But Kanarek, who runs Princeton Review SAT prep courses in Orange County, says the matter is simple:
"If you give me a smart kid and 10 extra minutes a section, that's 100 extra points," he said. "You can get to math questions you wouldn't normally get to. But primarily it's the critical reading section. If I give you unlimited time to solve a critical reading problem, you'll ultimately get there."
In fact, 20% to 25% of non-disabled students never complete all the questions on the SAT, which is in two parts, one of which measures verbal ability and the other, math. Only 730 of the 1.3 million college-bound high school seniors who took the test last year received a perfect score of 1600.
But if special accommodations improve a student's scores, should that be considered a problem?
Konecky, the disability rights activist, thinks not. Students who seek out extra help do so because they need and deserve it, he says. "Nobody wants to be labeled as having a mental disability," he says.
Indeed, activists argue that up to a fifth of the entire population really has a learning disability. Wealthier people simply have better access to assert their rights under the law, they say.
Even if the activists are correct, those involved in the education system are troubled by that unequal access.
"I'm dyslexic," said Caperton, the College Board president. "When I took the test long ago, they didn't have these accommodations. I think they are a very fair thing to do for people who have disabilities."
At the same time, he worries about giving extra help to those who are already privileged. "It's a reflection of an unequal education system in America," he said. "In my opinion it's the greatest challenge that society has."
But there is another problem as well. Research has found that the SAT is generally a very good predictor of how well a student will do in college, which is why colleges use SAT scores in admissions. But an Educational Testing Service study of students who received special accommodations suggested the extra help may undermine that predictive ability.