The major college-admissions scandal that’s gotten splashy headlines for massive bribes and celebrity involvement relied, in part, on the schemers producing fraudulent SAT scores by getting test-taking accommodations normally made for students with disabilities.

Advocates for such special-needs students say they’re dismayed by the news and fear that the fraud case, unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. Justice Department, could end up making it harder for students with learning disabilities to get the allowances that level the playing field for them.

Fifty people were charged in the scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford and other elite colleges. Federal prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant millions of dollars to bribe their children’s way into college. In many cases, coaches and administrators were bribed to make children look like star athletes, even in sports they did not play.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab

The test-taking part of the scandal involved parents allegedly getting medical documentation that entitled their children to extra time on SAT and ACT tests, accommodations normally made for students with disabilities. Typically, students with those accommodations take the test alone, supervised by a proctor. The arrangement gave the proctor the ability to rig the tests.

“Every time we see abuse of disability-rights laws, the people who end up paying for it are disabled people,” said Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative, a project of the Center for American Progress.

She and Lindsay Jones, CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, both said they feared there would be a backlash that would make it harder for disabled people to get accommodations during testing.

Advertising

For students with learning disabilities, there is a significant discrepancy between their academic achievement and their intellectual ability. They may struggle with spoken or written language, arithmetic or reasoning. Because their disability is invisible and can be hard to diagnose, it is “a constant struggle” to prove that their disability is real, Jones said.

Testing accommodations can help a student by reducing distractions and giving them more time to process information, but getting those accommodations can be an expensive and drawn-out process, Jones said. Applicants must fill out a lengthy form, then provide testing information to prove that they have a disability. The process often takes nine months, and disability testing can cost thousands of dollars.

Coaches and parents in college scheme find jobs in danger

Lia Beatty, a sophomore at Whitman College in Walla Walla and an advocate for students with disabilities, called the fraud case “deeply unsettling and upsetting.” Beatty, who is diagnosed with dyslexia, ADD and slow processing, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for a change in higher-education laws to make it easier for college students to prove that they have disabilities, which would help them get accommodations in college.

Beatty says she was not diagnosed until after she entered college, so she did not receive special accommodations on the SAT or ACT. Because of her diagnosis, Whitman allows her to take twice as long as her peers on college exams, and she can take them in a distraction-reduced environment. She can also take tests in an alternative format, and she has permission to record lectures and use audio books for assigned reading. “Honestly, I’m very lucky to be at Whitman now — most colleges are not like Whitman,” she said.

“Having accommodations is what is going to allow those of us with learning disabilities the tools to unlock the gatekeeping that is preventing us from achieving self-actualization, and giving back to the world,” said Beatty. She is studying neuroscience.