What Parents Need to Know about Accommodations

Background: The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Right to Accommodations
The right to reasonable accommodations is granted to people who have disabilities that interfere with performing a major life task (such as learning, reading, speaking, working). The law that guides who gets accommodations under what circumstances is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504. This section of the law protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination.

Accommodations in Public School 
Students with disabilities may receive special education services during the K-12 years as delineated in a “504 Plan” of "Individualized Education Plan." A student with a documented disability has the right to reasonable accommodations under the ADA. The key word here is 'reasonable.' The word 'reasonable' does not mean that the testing situation has to be perfect, only that testing companies take reasonable steps to 'level the playing field' so that students with disabilities can compete with their peers. Accommodations may include special privileges to help minimize the impact of a person's disability. For example, a person with diabetes may take breaks to check blood sugar or eat. A person who can not write well with a pencil may dictate responses or use an alternative interface. A person with dyslexia may take his test untimed or with 50% extra time.

There have been recent changes to the ADA that will make it easier to document a disability. The changes also broaden how many people may qualify for accommodations. Under the revised ADA, people may have accommodations even when their disability is managed with a “mitigating measure”. A “mitigating measure” refers to medication or another helpful device that the person uses to cope with his disability (hearing aid, dictation software, etc.). For example, a student with diabetes can still have accommodations, even though insulin regulates her blood sugar. It can also mean that a student with ADHD is still entitled to accommodations when taking their stimulant medication. The new changes in the law also protect people with disabilities that only create problems every now and then. For example, a person with epilepsy could be entitled to accommodations even if he is not actually having a seizure during the testing.

Finally, the law has been changed to recognize people's difficulties across a broader range of 'life activities.' These activities may include learning, self-care, writing, or working. The student's performance can now to be compared to that of their peers, not only the general population. This means that the student's need for accommodations can be compared to the other people in their same situation, such as other students applying to graduate school or other college students. All of these changes mean that more people with disabilities could be eligible for accommodations. Companies who produce and administer standardized tests must comply with the provisions of ADA.
 

Accommodations for High Stakes Tests
There is such confusion and stress about applying for accommodations during “high stakes” tests such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT. For some students, accommodations such as extended time or frequent breaks during testing gives them a better chance of showing their true potential. We frequently receive calls from parents or young adults asking what they need to do to arrange for accommodations when they take standardized tests. Unfortunately, most parents, students, and even some psychologists, are not familiar with the process. Common mistakes can jeopardize the student's chances of being granted accommodations. Learn More
 

How Do I Qualify for Accommodations?
Neuropsychological testing will validate a disability and the need for accommodations within school, at college, or for high stakes testing such as the ACT or MCAT.
 

Plan Ahead!
Make sure that the student has a Documented record of receiving, using, and benefiting from accommodations in the educational setting well before the test. Any accommodations that the student will request from the testing service should already be a documented aspect of that student's educational program (e.g. 504 plan or IEP).

Avoid the Pitfall of 'No Documentation'
Many parents make the mistake of letting their high school students 'get by' with informal accommodations granted by helpful teachers. For example, Ms. Smith may let Jay turn in his work late, and finish tests during lunch because she knows he will do well if given more time. Some students beg their parents to let them avoid a 504 plan or IEP so they will not have to feel different from their peers. Of course, many parents give in and do things like spending hours helping with homework or hiring tutors to help the student along. This will hurt the student when she then applies for accommodations from a testing company, because there is no documentation of what the student had to do differently from her peers in order to succeed. Without a formal 504 plan, IEP, Disability Support Services record from a college, or private school education plan, there is no documented history of a need for accommodations. If the student has been successful without accommodations, why should the testing company believe that he suddenly needs them a month or two prior to a 'high stakes' test?

Schedule your Testing Well Before the Deadline
Parents and students also make the mistake of calling to schedule a psychological evaluation a few weeks before the test date. Waiting until the last minute can be a disaster. Companies like the Educational Testing Service review thousands of applications for disability accommodations. They specify on their websites how much time they need in advance to review each student's case. Do not miss their deadlines. Also consider that during peak times of the year, particularly January through April, a psychologist or neuropsychologist may be booked out for months. After the testing, some psychologists and doctors may take months to produce a report. Families should make their testing appointment months in advance of the application deadline to ensure having results on time. Remember too that you may end up going through an appeals process or having to get extra documentation if you are denied, so allow extra time for that as well. Many other psychologists have a long wait period before an appointment. At the NADC, we see clients within a month and have a report within two weeks.

Choose an Expert Psychologist that is trusted
Sometimes because of costs or the lack of knowledge, we make poor decisions about professionals. Some clinicians who do psychological testing are not familiar with the law or with the guidelines of the testing companies. As active members of our state psychological associations, we often see listserv questions come up between psychologists who are confused about how to test to document disabilities for high stakes testing. Additionally, not all professionals who conduct evaluations know much about the provisions of ADA and IDEA (the laws that protect students with disabilities). They may have excellent clinical skills, but little training in how to advocate for a student's rights in a letter or report. Last but not least, before you schedule your testing, make sure that the psychologist or educational diagnostician has the credentials the testing company requires. This information is on the testing services websites.

Aside from credentials, it is critical to ask if the evaluator has the experience, the very latest versions of all tests, and up-to-date training to make sure the testing is done properly. The last thing anyone wants is to pay for an expensive psychological evaluation only to learn that the evaluator was not well prepared to document a disability for 'high stakes testing'. Before calling the psychologist, parents and students must visit the websites of each testing company to learn exactly what to ask for in an evaluation. For example, each test publisher has specific requirements about what tests they accept as documentation and whether they require the student to take his medication as usual (some testing companies require testing to be done with the student taking his medication as he does on school day, even though doing so may make it harder for the psychologist to understand the nature of the student's impairments).


Don't Try to Fake It!

Finally, there is research data to indicate that quite a few students who request testing for accommodations exaggerate or even fake problems. So aside from giving a sermon about why this is wrong (if you can read this, you already know), it's a mistake to try it. If a student tries to exaggerate a disability, he may end up skewing the results to look like he is of low intelligence or severely impaired. This is not a great idea if the student plans to use the report to advocate for herself in college or graduate school! The student may also happen to be tested by a psychologist who uses tools designed to detect malingering or detect unusual response patterns. Remember, psychologists are behavior specialists, and will be very skeptical if a very smart, successful student comes in and earns unexpectedly low scores.

 

To learn more about ADA and IDEA, please check these websites:

------------------
1. FAPE Law. 20 U.S.C. §1400(d)(1)(A) - http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/20/1400
2. IDEA Law. 94-142 (IDEA) – http://idea.ed.gov/
3. Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates -  http://www.copaa.org/
4. The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities - www.nichy.org 
5. The Council for Exceptional Children - www.cec.sped.org
6. ETS Documentation Requirements - http://www.ets.org/disabilities/documentation