Medical Examiner

Flag on the Field

Should colleges know when a student takes the SAT untimed?

SAT scores are down among this year’s college applicants, admissions offices are reporting. Whatever the reason for the drop-off, enrollment in SAT preparation courses continues to be brisk. The Washington Post Co., Slate’s parent, was one of the only big-city newspaper companies to show a profit last quarter—by virtue of its ownership of the test-prep company Kaplan Inc., whose revenue jumped 26 percent. And when test prep is not enough, there is another option with increasing appeal to well-off families: a diagnosis of dyslexia or attention deficit disorder that allows a student to take the SAT and other standardized tests untimed.

Given the often unseemly scramble for slots at top colleges, it’s not surprising that the learning-disability diagnosis has become something of a racket. But until a few years ago, alert university admissions officers could check whether students might be exploiting an advantage: SAT scores resulting from untimed tests were marked, or “flagged.” Then Mark Breimhorst, a Stanford student who was born without hands, sued the Educational Testing Service to stop the flagging, which he called a “scarlet letter” for disabled students. ETS settled rather than face a trial against a sympathetic plaintiff. In October 2003, the College Board stopped flagging the SAT, the GMAT (for business school entrance), and the GRE (for graduate study). The only holdouts are the medical- and law-schools boards, which continue to flag results from students given additional time on the MCAT and the LSAT, despite court challenges.

To be sure, extra time doesn’t automatically mean better scores. Unprepared students given additional time on standardized tests tend to make additional errors, research has shown. But when above-average students are schooled in standardized test-taking, they can use the extra time to improve their scores. This means that for children from higher socioeconomic brackets (the kind with the money to take a test-prep course), a higher than expected score, in light of the student’s grades and other application materials, may be the result of gaming the test by taking it untimed thanks to an unwarranted diagnosis. Since they can no longer rely on flagging to help them suss this out, some college admissions officers have become generally skeptical of SAT results.

The distortions worked on the SAT and other standardized tests are revealed in data winkled out of the College Board last year by Sam Abrams, a young researcher at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Nationwide, only 2 percent of students who have taken the SAT over the past 10 years have done so untimed. Most of these students’ diagnoses are presumably genuine. But in places like Greenwich, Conn., and certain zip codes of New York City and Los Angeles, the percentage of untimed test-taking is said to be close to 50 percent. These data aren’t readily available from the College Board, which publishes only statewide figures on the numbers of “accommodated” SAT takers. But Abrams noticed that in the District of Columbia—the only city whose data is separately released by the board, since D.C. is a separate jurisdiction—7 to 9 percent of all SAT-takers typically get extra time on the test. The results clearly show that these “accommodated” children are not the city’s poor and disadvantaged. Nationally, children who receive extra time on the test score lower as a group than students who don’t. In 2005, they scored an average combined 975 on the math and verbal sections, compared to 1,029 for standard test-takers. This is what one would expect for children struggling to keep up because of disabilities. But the trend was reversed among the 264 children in D.C. who took untimed SATs in 2005. They scored a combined 1,105 on the tests, well above the national average and even further above the average of 957 among D.C. children who took timed tests.

It seems unlikely that learning-disabled children in the District of Columbia are smarter or more adept at test-taking than their cohorts. Either some of these kids don’t need the extra testing time, or a lot of other children who are not getting it should be. Abrams’ explanation is that parents of children at the city’s private schools are manipulating the testing system to try to get their averagely bright children into Ivy League institutions. I asked Brian O’Reilly, the College Board’s spokesman, whether he believed that the “accommodated” D.C. students were more dyslexic or hyperactive than the children whose scores they bettered on average by more than 150 points. “Are you saying that dyslexics can’t be bright children?” he asked me.

Since the Breimhorst settlement, ETS says it has tightened its review of applications for untimed tests, trying to undercut the extremely fungible diagnostic criteria that lead many parents to “therapist shop” until they find a professional who will diagnose their child as hoped. But the D.C. data suggest that ETS has a way to go. Only about 60 percent of D.C. graduates take the SAT. Few get extra time on tests in the low-income Southeast section of the city, where in four high schools, not a single student passed an AP exam last year. It’s a troubling example of the disequilibrium of opportunity.

Unlike ETS, the Association of American Medical Colleges, which oversees the MCAT, is taking a stand against misuse of disability diagnoses. The academy isn’t in the business of assuring social equity. But it does want medical students who can become good doctors. Despite threats of lawsuits, the academy has refused to stop flagging results from untimed MCATs. Research led by the director of the MCAT, Ellen Julian, has shown both that MCAT test results are good predictors of medical-college performance, and that time extensions, on average, improve scores. Medical practice, of course, does not generally allow the luxury of time. “We think people with the ability to work speedily and efficiently will do better in medical school and as doctors,” Julian says.

The Disability Rights Association, which sponsored Breimhorst’s lawsuit, has not lined up to sue over the flagging of the MCAT. It has, though, sued the MCAT over its refusal to expand the category of students in California who are declared “disabled” and thus permitted extra testing time. The Americans With Disabilities Act states that students who are “substantially limited” in a life activity qualify for accommodations. But California law requires accommodations for anyone “limited” in a major activity, which some legal experts have defined as inadequate in relation to one’s peers. It’s a Lake Wobegon *-in-reverse standard of disability. And it could give virtually anyone with an average mind and a wealthy family a leg up on the admissions test.

Correction, May 16: The original sentence misspelled Lake Wobegon. (Return to the corrected sentence.)