Paying for a Disability Diagnosis to Gain Time
on College Boards
by Jane Gross, New York Times, September 25, 2002
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Dr. Dana Luck and Dr. Steven Mattis work in a modest suite of
offices here, in the shadow of Westchester County's fanciest
mall. The sign on their door reads "Center for
Neuropsychological Services." These days, for the two
educational psychologists, that often means the diagnosis and
treatment of learning disabilities.
Clients pay $2,400 for a battery of tests and an evaluation,
$200 an hour for psychotherapy and $250 an hour more if Dr.
Luck or Dr. Mattis visit a high school or the Educational
Testing Service to lobby for a learning-disabled student who
is not getting the special services the law requires.
Lately, Drs. Luck and Mattis are seeing many parents and
college-bound teenagers who want only one thing: a diagnosis
that will entitle the youngster to additional time to take the
Scholastic Assessment Tests. They assume this has something to
do with a recent decision by the College Board to remove the
asterisk flagging the scores of disabled students who take the
exam under various special conditions.
"More and more people are asking legitimately," Dr. Luck said.
"But more and more are also asking because, why not ask? It's
part of our culture that every point matters, so they're
looking for any kind of edge," including time and a half or
double time on the stressful three-hour exam.
In Westchester County, which is typical of many wealthy,
highly competitive communities, a dozen educational
psychologists acknowledged this kind of diagnosis-shopping in
the wake of the College Board's announcement that it would
unflag scores of learning-disabled students.
Dr. Jeanne Dietrich, a psychologist in White Plains, said she
had five such requests this summer, more than ever before in
that slow season. Each parent reported that "a child had
bombed the SAT" and wanted a quick diagnosis because the
application deadline was nearing for the next round of tests.
Four agreed to a thorough evaluation and one hung up, Dr.
The asterisk indicating that extended time and other
accommodations were made to the test-takers will disappear
from student records a year from now and will be removed
retroactively from tests taken previously. That means 30,000
students, or 2 percent of the 1.3 million high school seniors
who sit for the College Boards each year, will submit scores
to colleges as if they had been tested under the same
conditions as everyone else.
This change, part of the settlement of a 1999 lawsuit, has
been hailed by disability rights groups and many educators who
see unflagged, extended-time testing as a way to level the
playing field for those with learning disorders.
"Everybody has heard stories of rejections," said Dr. Richard
F. Heath, a psychologist who runs the support program for
learning-disabled students at St. Thomas Aquinas College in
Rockland County. "That anxiety will be completely alleviated
without the asterisk."
But others worry that the unflagging of scores will be an
invitation for accelerated abuse among some well-to-do
families who have already been diagnosis-shopping and thus
cheapen the claims of the truly disabled while widening the
gap between the haves and the have-nots.
"This further privileges the privileged," said Jane Brown, the
vice president who oversees admissions at Mount Holyoke
College in South Hadley, Mass., which is in the second year of
a five-year research project on the effect of making the tests
optional. "You have to be able to afford a diagnosis."
Dr. Alan Wachtel, a New York City psychiatrist with a
specialty in attention deficit disorder, said it was
"regrettably true" that some parents bid for the services of
"hired guns." Their behavior contributed to an adversarial
attitude in certain schools, he said, where he is sometimes
asked, "What are the parents paying you to say this?"
Judith Hirschhorn, director of secondary school special
education in Armonk, said she had received several suspicious
requests from 11th and 12th graders who had never sought
services before, some on the suggestion of their private
College Board tutors.
Jerry Wishner, chairman of the Committee on Special Education
in Chappaqua, said that he had "never been approached only for
the SAT," but added, "I can't say it's not done" by families
elsewhere — or by those in his school who are seeking private
evaluations in growing numbers. "That's their right," Dr.
Wishner said, regretfully.
The ability of rich families, however small their numbers,
essentially to buy the right to extended time on the College
Boards highlights the most common criticisms of a test under
siege. Detractors say that it is a proxy for affluence, not
intelligence. They say scores are polluted by advantages such
as $400-an-hour private tutoring and are therefore not
Many educators, and the officials of the College Board, say
that the small risk of abuse pales beside the unfairness of
stigmatizing, or perhaps discriminating against, disabled
test-takers. But to lessen that risk, the College Board, which
owns the tests, recently beefed up its compliance department
to audit and discipline high schools that seem to be granting
an unreasonable number of accommodations.
College Board officials do not dispute that there is an
unintended class bias in the granting of accommodations,
although they say it is no worse than other inequities in the
education system, be it outdated textbooks or overburdened
"That's true wherever you look," said Chiara Coletti, the
board's spokesman, who once held the comparable position for
the New York City schools chancellor. The College Board also
says it widely promotes test accommodations in handouts and on
its Web site and wishes more inner-city schools used them but
has no power to force the issue.
The College Board has no data on the demographic breakdown of
requests for extended-time testing. But a study by the
California state auditor several years ago showed one in four
accommodations went to private school students.
The board does track the direct correlation between average
family income and College Board scores: In 2002, those
students whose families earned less than $10,000 a year scored
859 out of a possible 1600, while those earning more than
$100,000 scored 1123.
Large inner-city high schools have neither resources nor time
for sophisticated diagnosis and services. One psychologist in
private practice who used to work in a Bronx public school
guessed that half of the students there might have qualified
for remediation but said that "the city would have gone
broke." Ms. Hirschhorn, in Armonk, said that an
underprivileged youngster was "not going to look like a child
with a disability in a sea of children not doing well, and
that's a heartbreak."
Government statistics show that 2.9 million children in public
elementary and secondary schools are learning disabled, or 6
percent of the total. More than a quarter drop out. Of those
who succeed in graduating from high school, 13 percent go on
to a four-year college. But only 2 percent seek test
accommodations. Once in college, 11 percent seek extra help.
Access to extra help in college and a true appreciation for a
disabled child's efforts could be adversely affected by the
unflagging of test scores, some educators say, even as they
applaud the anti-discriminatory sentiment behind the move.
Without the asterisk on College Board scores, nothing on a
standard college application — including a transcript of
courses and grades — would alert admissions officials to a
diagnosis of a learning disability.
"If you use the information in a positive way, it creates a
context," said Ms. Brown of Mount Holyoke. "You want to
understand all the threads, the whole story, and position a
student's accomplishments in light of the difficulties they've
faced. And you want to know if you have adequate services for
a student you've admitted."
Others worry that a school that admits a student not knowing
about a disability might not even have the necessary services.
"It's one thing to get in," said Frank Liana, one of New York
City's leading private college counselors. "It's another thing
to get what you need to succeed. Why do you even want them at
a school that is biased against them and doesn't feel equipped
Drs. Luck and Mattis are less concerned with whether scores
are flagged than they are with a test that they say consumes
and distorts the last years of high school and inspires
desperate requests. "It's not `Can you help us understand
what's wrong with our child?' " Dr. Luck said. "It's `Can you
help us document the need for more time on this test?'
Students are anxious. Parents are anxious. The environment is
anxious. But we would much rather debunk the myth of the SAT
than help people work the loopholes."
Dr. Luck and Dr. Mattis say they gently explain to such
families that they do not churn out diagnoses for anyone who
can pay. Yes, they will fight for a child who they believe has
been unfairly denied services at school or handle an appeal
with the testing service. But only after an evaluation
documents a real problem. "We give them our data and sometimes
they will not hear it," Dr. Luck said. "So they get angry and
go to someone else until they get what they want."