Kate is a senior in high school from Boulder, Colorado. She is working as a writing and editing intern with Cultures of Dignity this spring.
Here are her thoughts on how the college scandals influence students, like her, with learning differences.
What the College Admission Scandals Mean for Students with Learning Differences
By Kate Gallop
I was first tested for a learning disability when I was eleven. I stumbled through elaborate written, verbal, and computerized tests. The results all pointed to the same conclusion: I have ADD.
That explained a lot. It justified all the hours I spent agonizing over my fifth-grade homework load and lack of attention in class. It was disheartening at first, but then I figured it out. By my Sophomore year of high school, I had learned how to stay organized and ask for help from my teachers independently.
I am proud of how much I’ve adjusted. I worked hard for years to stay on track with my coursework and advocate for myself. But when junior year came around and I began looking at colleges and studying for the ACT, I learned that my hard work didn’t always matter. Instead, I was advised by my college counselors not to talk about my learning difference in college essays because colleges might look down on my test scores if they knew I had extra time. I hated the pressure that I felt to hide this part of myself from schools. By junior year, I had finally stopped feeling inadequate because of my learning difference, and I didn’t want to revert back to hiding that part of me. I didn’t want to believe what my counselors told me about some colleges, but unfortunately, they weren’t wrong.
Just last year a lawsuit was filed against the ACT for its practice of “flagging” students who used accommodations on their tests. In order to make more money, the ACT had participating colleges pay them to view learning disability information and use it in their decision-making process.
Applying to colleges is already incredibly stressful from start to finish. I was so nervous that I had nightmares about typos in my essays. It is horrible to hear that, despite my best efforts on my applications, the ACT flagged my learning difference as a mark against me. Even worse was knowing that some colleges paid the ACT to identify which students had disabilities because they saw it as a liability.
“It’s wrong that the ACT flagging impacted so many people. Having a learning difference isn’t something that determines how successful someone will be in college. Honestly, having ADHD has helped me learn to work harder and be a better student.” – Jessica, 19
The issue is further complicated because, in an effort to cheat on the ACT, people have been abusing accommodations that are in place for people with disabilities. Parents have been accused of paying psychologists to provide a fake diagnosis to get their child extra time. In some cases, the accommodations called for separate testing spaces where proctors could be paid off to change their answers.
This college admissions scandal hurts the acceptability of students who really do need accommodations. Standardized tests are, in most cases, a race against the clock. This leads to a complicated dynamic because students who don’t have disabilities often view the accommodations as unfair.
“I need extra time on standardized tests and this scandal hurts my credibility as a student with a learning difference. The accommodations are in place to level the playing field, and when people abuse them, it makes it easier for people to overlook their importance.” -Caroline, 18
In junior year advisory, we talked about learning differences. One of my friends said, “Wouldn’t anyone perform better if they had more time?” To some extent, I understood her perspective. From her viewpoint, other people used calculators during math tests, extra time to finish problems she hadn’t had time to double check, and the ability to type in-class essays. She saw it as unfair; she thought everyone should be treated “equally”.
That’s where I disagreed with her. Equity is crucial in giving students equal opportunity to succeed in school. Everyone should get the support they need to perform at their best, and this support isn’t the same for each student. In order for equity to be upheld, students with learning differences must have the accommodations they need to do their best work.
In the moment, I replied, “It’s like we are on a highway and we both have to cross a finish line, except my car goes 20 mph and yours goes 70 mph. Of course it’s going to take me longer to get there, but if we had the same amount of time you’d be miles ahead.” If everyone got extra time on the ACT or SAT it wouldn’t help the average student, it would only hurt those who truly need accommodations.
“My friend once told me ‘you don’t need accommodations and even if you did then you shouldn’t use them because it isn’t fair to everyone else” – Jake, 16
When extra time is abused, it contributes to the common misconceptions about the 1 in 5 people who actually have a learning disability. I grew up never wanting to use accommodations and feeling insecure about my learning difference. After finally understanding that I have nothing to hide and my intelligence has no correlation with how quickly I work, it is sad to see that there are so many in the world around me who have yet to reach the same understanding.
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