New online-only SAT puts students with disabilities at a disadvantage, advocates say

When the College Board announced earlier this year that students would take its flagship SAT test exclusively online in coming years, its leaders touted the move as a “student-friendly” victory with a shorter test and a deadline. faster execution for scores. and overall a less stressful experience for students.

SAT online: a person in a blue and white shirt with brown hair

Kayla Helm-Queen

Kayla Helm-Queen is a 2016 college graduate with dyslexia who serves on the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But some young people who are neurodivergent or have learning disabilities, already concerned about what they say are structural biases in the existing test, warn that switching to an all-online SAT does little to allay their long-term worries. date regarding the fairness of the test and could even make the situation worse.

“Is it better or worse to go online? I mean, the analogy that came to mind was, is chewing tobacco or smoking a cigarette better or worse? ” said Kayla Helm-Queena 2016 graduate with dyslexia who serves on the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council.

And with a growing number of universities extending pandemic-era policies that removed standardized testing requirements, some students and disability advocates see the shift to digital as yet another reason to skip the test altogether.

“It’s the same product,” Helm-Queen said of the new review. “Some of the side effects are different, but it’s still harmful overall.”

Does a shorter test have a cost?

The College Board released few details about the new digital test, other than the timing of the rollout, with the computer-based exam to be implemented in the United States in 2024. The organization said the new test would be significantly more shorter than the current one. one, with only two sets of questions in each of the reading and writing and math sections. The online format also means that scores will be returned to students more quickly and calculators will be allowed on the entire maths section.

“Is it better or worse to go online? I mean, the analogy that came to mind was, is chewing tobacco or smoking a cigarette better or worse? »

Kayla Helm-Queen, Member, National Center for Learning Disabilities Young Adult Leadership Council

“The shorter the better,” said Ruth Colker, professor of constitutional law and expert on disability policy at Ohio University’s Moritz College of Law. But in order to pack the same level of assessment into a shorter amount of time, the new digital SAT will use an “adaptive multi-stage methodology.” This means that the second section of each subject will become easier or more difficult depending on the students’ performance in the previous section.

Still, “these adaptive design frameworks make assumptions about what you know or don’t know based on your previous answers,” Colker said. “For neurologically atypical people, they don’t necessarily learn in the same, even linear, way as others.”

There is little research on the impact of these approaches on students with learning disabilities. SAT’s adoption of an adaptive model will mark one of the biggest expansions of the process, with millions of students who take the test each year.

The College Board did not respond directly to questions about how the new test design might affect students with disabilities, but said in a statement that adaptive tests “have been used for large-scale standardized numerical assessments for nearly 30 years old”.

The ACT has also faced similar criticism of bias and unfairness from disability groups, although students can take the ACT online or in print.

Helm-Queen, whose dyslexia makes certain tasks like remembering multiplication tables more difficult, explained that she is able to solve complex problems but does not always solve them in a “conventional” way. She fears that on a test like the new digital SAT she might end up being pushed into an easier section after struggling with the first few questions, even though she has the ability to pass a ‘harder’ module. She also worries about the additional anxiety the adaptive model might bring.

“I feel like I would be stressed if I realized the test was getting easier because I wasn’t doing well,” Helm-Queen said.

An “uphill battle” for accommodation

Advocates and students with disabilities are also concerned that the transition to the new digital test will solve the long-standing difficulties that students with disabilities face in obtaining the support to take the test to which they are entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Extra time, more breaks, or access to a separate space to take the test are some of the most common.

To get help or accommodations, students must first determine the types of help they need and are eligible for. Students must then apply, either through their high school or directly to the College Board, and provide documentation explaining why they need special assistance.

That process needs to change, say proponents. According to Marci Lerner Miller, a Californian lawyer who argued several high-profile cases regarding standardized testing and students with disabilities, “Most people who try to get accommodations have a hard time doing it.”

SAT online: a light-haired person wearing a black jacket and a white shirt

Marci Lerner Miller

Attorney Marci Lerner Miller has argued several high-profile cases involving standardized testing and students with disabilities.

One reason is that the types of evidence requested by the College Board, such as psychological evaluations, can be expensive. over $10,000. Students from wealthier families or whose parents are highly educated can usually find ways to navigate the bureaucratic system, Lerner Miller said, “but otherwise it’s been an uphill battle from the start.”

The computerized test will make certain types of accommodation more easily accessible; visually impaired students, for example, will no longer need to request a special large-print paper exam and can simply adjust the font size of the digital test with just a few clicks. But otherwise, the accommodation application process “shouldn’t change,” the College Board said.

Supporters like Colker see it as a missed opportunity. With digital proctoring, students should be able to pause tests to allow for more frequent breaks or have more time to easily pass their exams, she argued, adding that it’s “a pity to waste the opportunity that becomes available when you go to a digital format.

A world without admission tests

The standardized admission tests were confronted allegations of prejudice and discrimination for decades, and concerns Whether tests can accurately predict student success in college is nothing new. Over the past two decades, a growing number of schools have stopped requiring standardized test scores in applications, with university officials arguing the tests did not fully reflect the students’ abilities. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of universities across the country that did not require SAT or ACT scores for admission doubleas test centers were closed and student lives were turned upside down.

While the schools like MIT reinstated testing requirements, more than two-thirds of four-year colleges continued not to require testing for their incoming classes in 2022, despite most students returning to class and in-person administrations of standardized testing resuming.

“You’ve seen colleges successfully make admissions decisions for years without testing. And so the question is, why then go back to them?

University Advisor Marybeth Kravets

And a small but growing number of schools have gone blind, even ceasing to consider SAT or ACT scores in admissions decisions. Last year, the University of California system agreed not to use standardized test scores in admissions or scholarship decisions for all of its campuses, following a ruling in a lawsuit brought by students with disabilities who argued they did not have equal access to testing and accommodations in the wake of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some preliminary research suggests that colleges that opt ​​for the optional test could see an increase in the diversity of their admitted students. A study 2021 in the American Journal of Educational Research found that optional testing admissions policies were associated with small increases in enrollment of low-income, female, and black, Latino, and Native American students in schools with optional testing policies compared to colleges without policies optional in the tests.

Marybeth Kravets, University Counselor in Illinois with decades of experience helping neurodivergent students apply to collegeargues that the pandemic may have been the nail in the coffin of standardized college admissions tests, especially for neurodivergent students and students with learning disabilities.

“You’ve seen colleges successfully make admissions decisions for years without testing,” she said. “And so the question is, ‘Why then go back to them?'”

Marley Brackett, a rising high school student from San Diego, Calif., who has already received school testing accommodations, opted out of taking the SAT or ACT before she began applying to schools this fall. The universities she applies to do not require the tests, which she celebrated.

“They just seemed super painful,” Brackett said of the standardized tests.

She spoke with her college counselor about the anxiety she felt about taking the new tests and how difficult it was to navigate the adjustment process.

“We just kind of decided in the end that it wasn’t worth it,” she said.


Jacob Gardenswartz is a Washington, DC-based journalist. He has covered the White House, Congress, health and disability policy, and other topics for outlets including NBC News, The American Independent, and YouthToday. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he holds an MPA from the Fels Institute of Government.

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