As the COVID-19 pandemic spread through the U.S. and schools closed in the spring of 2020, the College Board testing agency announced a plan to allow students to take its Advanced Placement (AP) exams online from their homes.
The plan was met almost immediately with objections from students with disabilities, who said it failed to provide them the accommodations they were entitled to by law.
Five blind students, led by New Jersey resident Kaleigh Brendle, filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and within weeks were granted the right to use Braille tests and hard-copy tactile graphics. Not only that, the College Board also agreed to consult with the National Federation for the Blind on how to accommodate students with disabilities taking the board’s signature SAT college entrance exam.
It was just the latest in a decades-long fight over accommodations for students with disabilities who are taking exams that are crucial to their educations and job prospects.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that schools, testing agencies and governments provide accommodations for a wide range of tests, including high school equivalency exams (such as the GED), college entrance exams (such as the PSAT, SAT and ACT), graduate school exams (such as the GRE or GMAT), professional school exams (such as the LSAT for law schools or MCAT for medical schools), and licensing exams for trades (such as cosmetology, plumbing or electrical).
“When needed testing accommodations are provided, test-takers can demonstrate their true aptitude,” the department says.
But these accommodations have sometimes been difficult to get, or come with strings attached. The department’s guidance says that anyone “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as seeing, hearing, learning, reading, concentrating, or thinking) or a major bodily function (such as the neurological, endocrine, or digestive system)” is eligible to request a testing accommodation.
What the test-takers should know
The test-taker should request the accommodation directly with the organization administering the test and the documentation the organization requires proving the disability must be “reasonable and limited.” Examples include evaluations, diagnoses, or recommendations from professionals such as educators, doctors, or psychologists; and proof of past testing accommodations.
Common accommodations include extended time to take the test, Braille or large-print exam books, screen readers, scribes, and wheelchair-accessible testing stations.
Testing agencies have sometimes been reluctant to grant accommodations, though. According to Education Week, in 2016 the Department of Justice investigated the College Board and ACT Inc. “after persistent complaints that the testing organizations reject many requests for accommodations that are routinely provided by schools.”
The rules are not negotiable
The Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT, got in legal trouble in 2018 after a judge found that the organization was treating requests for accommodations like a negotiation — offering to grant part of what was asked for with no further documentation, but requiring test-takers to submit more documentation to receive the full accommodation they’d requested.
There has also been a long-running controversy over whether testing agencies should be able to “flag” the scores of students who were granted accommodations based on disability. College and graduate school admissions are not supposed to discriminate based on disability, but by denoting which test-takers received accommodations, testing organizations opened up the possibility of admissions discrimination, according to several complaints.
Mark Breimhorst, a man born with no hands, sued the makers of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) in 1999 after they flagged his score to note he had received extra time.
Halie Bloom was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the makers of the ACT in 2018, after they flagged her score denoting that she had received accommodations for a “learning or cognitive disability.”
The Department of Justice has moved to address many of these issues, stating plainly that “flagging policies are prohibited by the ADA,” and that students taking exams administered by independent testing agencies should receive basically the same accommodations that they have been given by their schools.
But Kaleigh Brendle’s case shows that test-takers sometimes still need to appeal directly to the department to ensure that their rights under the ADA are protected.