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Unfair Advantage

Newsletter • volume 5 • number 1

It seems there is no limit to what certain students will do to get ahead. The latest ploy among some college applicants is to claim they need more time to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the primary college entrance exam. The extra time is necessary, they say, to compensate for their "learning disabilities."

Students with disabilities such as dyslexia or ADD (attention deficit disorder) typically receive up to 50 percent more time on exams. For students who are not disabled, that kind of advantage can increase scores by as much as 100 points - enough to make the difference between acceptance or rejection at top schools.

That might explain why the demand for special accommodations on tests ranging from the SAT to law and medical school exams has skyrocketed in recent years, especially among students in affluent white suburbs.

On a national basis only 1.9 percent of test takers get special accommodations. But in New England prep schools it is 10 percent. And in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, an astonishing 30 percent of children have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.

On the other hand, not a single student in inner city Los Angeles, where the average family income is less than $30,000 a year, received extra time on the SAT. Yet learning disabilities are much more common among low-income than high-income students. Clearly, says law professor Perry Zirkel, "something is out of whack."

What is out of whack seems to be that thousands of privileged young people are abusing a system intended to help students with real disabilities. They get away with this deception because their parents "shop around" for doctors and psychologists who will support their disability claims.

"When a parent walks in with a diagnosis from a physician saying they've got this and this, it's a difficult thing not to make accommodations," says one San Diego high school principal. Difficult indeed. Schools that question these diagnoses risk costly and embarrassing litigation.

Disability rights activists, who have fought long and hard for special accommodations, are reluctant to question even the most dubious claims. Yet teachers and school administrators are convinced that "disability cheating" is widespread. "Ethically, it feels very wrong to me," says Sheryl Burnam, a Los Angeles guidance counselor.

Of course it's wrong. This kind of fraud is unfair not only to disabled students, but to able students who take exams in the normal amount of time. It also raises questions as to how those students who gained an unfair advantage will handle other challenges in the workplace.