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Firm Agrees to Stop Flagging Disabled Students' Test Scores

Exams: After being sued by rights group, Educational Testing Service drops policy of using an asterisk to mark results of those who got extra time.

February 08, 2001|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The Educational Testing Service announced Wednesday that it will discontinue flagging the results of disabled students who received extra time or other special accommodations on standardized tests widely used by colleges and graduate schools.

The new policy, developed to settle a lawsuit by an Oakland-based disability rights group, covers the Graduate Record Exam; the Graduate Management Admission Test, popular among MBA programs; the Praxis, a test of teachers; and the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

The new policy does not cover the SAT, the nation's most popular test used for college admissions. Nor does it cover exams that help determine who gets into law school or medical school.

"The testing industry flags scores not to identify students as disabled, but rather to let score users know that the tests were taken with extended time," said Kurt Landgraf, ETS president.

The longtime practice of flagging such tests with an asterisk has been the subject of increasingly heated debate since Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act a decade ago.

Educators and admissions officers argue that the asterisk gives them insights into certain students' scores on tests that are all supposed to be taken under identical conditions. Sometimes, they said, an asterisk can help explain why a student does not do as well on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, advocates for the disabled said the flag, "Scores Obtained Under Special Conditions," subjects such students to potential discrimination. Some have argued that colleges reject disabled students to avoid the extra costs of providing them with an education.

In 1999, Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates sued ETS on behalf of Mark Breimhorst, a man with a physical disability who was rejected by business schools after his GMAT scores were flagged.

Breimhorst, who has no hands, was granted the use of a computer with a tracker ball and given 25% more time to complete the GMAT.

The International Dyslexia Assn. and the Californians for Disability Rights joined the legal action, saying that ETS violated a variety of federal and state laws to protect the disabled.

As part of the settlement, the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS agreed to stop flagging by Oct. 1. The ETS did not admit any wrongdoing or violation of any laws.

The settlement did not cover the SAT, which is owned by the College Board, a membership organization of high school and college officials.

College Board President Gaston Caperton, who is dyslexic, said, "There are many good reasons for flagging" such results. But he agreed that the board would convene a panel of experts and issue a report by March 31, 2002, on whether to end its flagging practice.

Chiara Coletti, a College Board vice president, noted that surveys of the organization's members showed a consensus that no change should be made without extensive research.

Many high school counselors and college admissions officers worry that removing the flag will encourage more white, wealthy students to attempt to gain an edge in college admissions by getting 4 1/2 hours to take the SAT, normally limited to three hours.

A recent report by the California state auditor found that a disproportionate share of students getting extra time on the SAT were white students from wealthy families--some of whom didn't need it.

Auditing the files of 330 students in 18 public schools, it found the basis for their special treatment to be questionable in 60 cases, or 18.2%. Students at private schools are four times as likely to get extra time.

The audit also showed that such special accommodations were nearly nonexistent for poor, minority students in urban public schools because of a lack of awareness of their rights or the school's failure to identify students with learning disabilities.

"Some [undeserving] students may have received extra time on standardized tests, possibly giving these students an unfair advantage over other students taking the same test," the audit concluded.

The asterisk next to such test scores, high school counselors and ETS researchers have said, discourages some students from seeking special treatment on the high-stakes test. But if it were to be removed, they said, it would open the floodgates to those trying to use the system to their advantage.

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