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Bill Targets Special Treatment for SAT Test-Takers

College Board, rather than schools, would decide who gets extra time because of disabilities. Currently, most of those taking advantage of such accommodations are white and affluent.

March 01, 2000|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Concerned that too many wealthy, white students are abusing the system to get extra time on the SAT, Democratic state lawmakers are pushing legislation that they say will make the system fairer for students of every race and economic class.

A bill introduced last week in the state Senate would forbid high schools in California from determining which students who claim a learning disability are qualified for special accommodations on the high-stakes test used in college admissions.

The intent is to take the pressure off the high schools, which complain about being bullied by pushy parents into giving their children special treatment, and leave the decision to the College Board, which owns the SAT.

"We think the College Board would be much more objective in reviewing these cases from afar," said Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), who introduced the bill at the request of the Democratic leadership.

Furthermore, the bill would require all public and private high schools in California to ensure that teachers and parents are informed that students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities may qualify for extra time on the SAT.

"That aspect of the bill reflects our own deep concern that youngsters who need special accommodations get them," said Chiara Coletti, a College Board vice president.

As for having the College Board screen every request for extra time, she said, such a change "raises big questions about volume and costs."

The College Board relies on high schools to make the call on nearly all of the 24,000 students seeking such special treatment. Its panel of experts reviewed only 670 of those cases last year, typically because the school did not verify that the student was given special treatment on school-based exams. The board turned down 82% of those requests.

Some College Board officials believe a review of all cases would curb abuse, and point to the experience of their chief competitor. American College Testing, which offers the rival ACT exam, has found that its requests have dropped since it began demanding to review all diagnoses of students seeking extra time.

But the ACT doesn't have the same volume as the SAT, nor has it generated the same frenzy among students and parents as a steppingstone--or stumbling block--on the way to the nation's best colleges and universities.

Alarcon said the legislation was inspired by an article in The Times that reported that, over the last five years, there has been a jump of more than 50% in the number of students who claimed a learning disability in order to be granted a longer time--usually 4 1/2 hours--to take the three-hour test.

College Board officials worry that, despite their best efforts, some privileged families are abusing the system.

Although only a tiny percentage of students--about 1.9% nationwide--get special accommodations on the SAT, a Times analysis shows that those receiving special treatment are concentrated in the wealthiest communities.

Students who attend elite private prep schools are three to five times as likely as others to get extended time. So are students who attend public high schools in the richest suburbs. But it's a rare occurrence in poor communities.

The legislation, SB 1853, cites The Times' analysis of 10 inner-city high schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including such schools as Roosevelt, Garfield, Inglewood and Santa Ana. Not one of the 1,439 students who took the SAT at the 10 schools last year received extra time or other accommodations.

Nearly 80% of the students were Latino or black; two-thirds reported family income of less than $30,000 a year. Their average combined score for the math and verbal sections of the SAT was 798.

In sharp contrast, the average SAT score for prep school students who received extra time exceeded 1,200.

"This creates a disadvantage for pupils who do not receive special accommodations," the bill says, "and creates an even greater disadvantage for those pupils who are disabled, but who have either not been diagnosed or are not aware they can qualify for special treatment."

Alarcon said he has experienced this with one of his children. "It was very frustrating. He is very intelligent, but couldn't take exams," he said.

Alarcon said he introduced the bill so that parents like him would understand all the options.

"We are losing a lot of bright people who could qualify for college, but don't because they don't have the financial means to get diagnosed," he said.

At the same time, Alarcon said he is troubled by wealthy parents who shop around for a psychologist or family physician to provide them a misdiagnosis--just so a student can get extra time on the test. "We are looking at fraud provisions," Alarcon said, suggesting that the bill will be amended. "We might look at doctors who might be abusing the system as well."

Peter Taylor, a University of California regent, said he was thrilled to see the Legislature taking up the issue. "It's clear [Alarcon] wants to make sure all kids have access to this, but at the same time, make sure that those who don't have learning disabilities aren't gaming the system."

At the urging of Taylor and other regents, UC President Richard C. Atkinson on Feb. 16 wrote to College Board President Gaston Caperton asking that they work together to quell concerns about fraud and bias.

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