A disproportionate share of white students from wealthy families are getting extra time on the SAT college entrance exam, including some who may not deserve it, while less-affluent minority students with learning disabilities may not be getting the assistance they need, the California state auditor reported Thursday.
The audit found “wide demographic disparities” among 1999 high school graduates who claimed a learning disability and received longer time--usually 4 1/2 hours--to take the three-hour test that weighs heavily in admissions decisions to the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.
At many public high schools, auditors determined that some deserving students might not be getting the accommodations because of a lack of awareness of their rights under disability laws or weaknesses in their schools’ procedures for identifying and screening students with suspected disabilities.
Yet in six of seven school districts in wealthy areas, including Beverly Hills, Palo Alto and Encinitas, auditors found questionable and potentially unwarranted cases of students receiving special treatment. In addition, auditors found that students at private schools received special accommodations at a rate four times higher than that of their public school counterparts.
“Some undeserving students may have received extra time on standardized tests, possibly giving these students an unfair advantage over other students taking the same test,” the auditors concluded.
The audit was requested by state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) after an article in The Times reported a jump, over five years, of more than 50% in the number of students who claimed a learning disability in order to get extra time or other accommodations.
Alarcon said he plans to reintroduce legislation next year to make sure that California high schools give no student a special edge and that all students have equal access to their rights under disability laws. “It’s not just the media pointing out a problem,” he said. “Now, we have a state audit pointing out the same problems. So we ought to fix them.”
Although only a tiny percentage of students--about 1.9% nationwide--gets special accommodations, a Times computer analysis showed that those receiving special treatment are concentrated in the wealthiest communities. But it’s a rare occurrence in poor inner-city schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Students in elite private prep schools are three to five times as likely as others to get extended time, the analysis showed. So are students who attend public high schools in the richest suburbs.
The findings of the audit mirrored those of The Times.
“Although having extra time on a college entrance exam does not guarantee a higher score, it may provide students with the opportunity for a better score,” the audit reported. “For some high-achieving students, a small to moderate score gain could potentially mean the difference between acceptance and rejection at the most competitive schools across the country.”
The 49-page report of the auditors was critical of the College Board, which owns the SAT, for relying so heavily on high schools to determine whether students qualify for extra time. The board hears appeals but grants only about one out of five.
College admissions officers and high school counselors have been horrified to watch some parents shop around for a psychologist who will supply them with the documentation they need to prove their son or daughter has a previously undiagnosed learning disability that warrants testing accommodations.
For the most part, they say, pressure is exerted on the local high schools, which are more likely to give in than the nationwide network of College Board experts.
The audit confirmed these reports, saying that at one district “the threat of litigation” allowed a student “to obtain questionable accommodations on a college entrance exam.”
The ACT, a competing college entrance exam, has tackled that problem by requiring that any student diagnosed with a learning disability within a year of the exam must submit documentation for review along with the test application. As a result, the number of requests for extra time has dropped.
Brian O’Reilly, executive director of the College Board’s SAT program, acknowledged that such gamesmanship concerns him and his colleagues. They work hard, he said, to make sure “students aren’t slipping in for reasons that don’t really deserve accommodations.” Yet these numbers remain very small, he said, compared to the nation’s 1.2 million high school seniors who take the test every year.
A greater concern, he said, is the students in poor high schools who legitimately need extra time but never get it because of inadequate screening or a lack of awareness among their parents or school officials.
“That is the inequity we are concerned about,” O’Reilly said.
The audit found that nearly 70% of California’s public high schools had no graduating seniors who took the SAT with extended time. That was true for 73% of private high schools, as well.
But auditors found some schools where the practice was prevalent, and sometimes questionable. “We reviewed the files of 330 California students from 18 public schools, most of whom obtained special accommodations on standardized tests, and found the basis for their accommodations questionable in 60 cases, or 18.2%,” the audit said.
These students were mostly from wealthy suburbs.
Around the state, it found that a disproportionate share of students receiving extra time on the exam were white. Although 37.8% of California’s students are white, 55.5% of the graduating seniors who got extra time on the SAT were white.
In contrast, Latinos make up 42% of student enrollment. However, only 6.3% of the graduating seniors receiving extra time on the SAT were Latino.
The audit also pointed out the regional differences among students who get special accommodations. Californians don’t take advantage of the program with as much frequency as some wealthy enclaves along the East Coast. It noted that only 1.2% of California’s students got extra time, compared to 6.8% in the District of Columbia and 5% in Connecticut.