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The College Admissions Scandal: Reflections from an Evaluator

The College Admissions scandal rocked the world of disability testing, with the work product from learning disability evaluators essential to the scam. In this newsletter I offer my reflections on the assessment process and why evaluators must maintain the integrity of the process. I will address several key points:

  • Are parents seeking to game the system?
  • Is slow test-taking always due to a learning disability?
  • Can students expect high test scores if they have high grades?
  • What does it mean to have a ‘disability?’
  • Is granting accommodations the best remedy?
  • How can we avoid another testing admissions scandal?

Are most parents seeking to game the system by helping their kids get extra time on tests?

In my experience, No, absolutely not. After conducting more than 1200 evaluations for students of all ages I am glad to debunk this myth. I suspect that I have had 3 students in total who were actively malingering, or attempting to ‘fake bad.’ For one thing, once students begin the process of testing they are not sophisticated enough to know which tests to ‘fake.’ Additionally, the type of student who is desirous of performing well on standardized tests is the type of student who possesses the morals to not be honest, not duplicitous. Said another way, students who care about their grades are conscientious and not apt to ‘cheat the system.’ I often hear from people that they ‘know people’ who had their kids evaluated just to get additional time. Yes, this may be a secondary gain but the truth is that almost all students and parents are most eager to understand the truth, not obtain a single outcome. As I often share with students and families, I know they are not seeking to ‘game the system’ because it is not human nature to spend more time engaging in an undesired activity if not absolutely necessary. Why would anyone want to spend 6 hours taking a test if they could do it just as well in 3?

Is slow test-taking usually or always due to a learning disability?

Absolutely not. Slow test-taking is due to a myriad of factors including: learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, anxiety, compulsivity, physical distress, and/or lesser ability. It is this last attribute which is least palatable to students and families. The truth is that over-achieving hard-working students who are not gifted cannot expect to perform very well on standardized tests. They are very frustrated by their lack of ability to score in the 98th percentile on standardized tests when they have straight A’s. Education about the difference in these metrics is necessary though not typically appreciated by students and families. As evaluators, we must ‘hold the line’ on this issue and not cave to pressures to grant extra time when not indicated.

What does it mean to have a disability?

There is an essential difference between having a condition and having a disability. Most of us walk around with various conditions, for example, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Anxiety, Diabetes, Near-sightedness, or ADHD, to name a few of thousands. However, in order for a condition to be accommodatable, it must be disabling. We all know this implicitly given the fact that we carry on in our work and academic lives, hiding our various conditions while performing adequately at work and school. It is only when our conditions impair our functioning that they are deemed worthy to be granted reasonable accommodations under the law. The two most common life function domains required for academics are reading and concentrating. If these domains are impaired by virtue of a condition then one is entitled to accommodations.

Is granting accommodations the best remedy, particularly extra time or a private room?

Due to societal expectation that students must attend college, and certainly the most prestigious one possible, students and parents are seeking evaluations in record numbers. Affluent parents who want their children to have the best possible resumes are willing and able to ‘leave no stone unturned’ in this pursuit. In my experience, undergoing a Psychoeducational Evaluation is becoming as commonplace as having a tutor for the SAT. Thus, there has been an uptick in the seeking of evaluations. That said, most parents seem to accept the findings and do not press for extra time when not warranted.

To make another point, granting extra time is not always the best remedy. Take anxiety or obsessiveness. With these conditions if one grants accommodations it may only worsen the condition, allowing the student to ‘spin out of control’ with their symptoms rather than learn to cope with and actually diminish them.

The last point I would like to make is that evaluators sometimes neglect the first part of the term Psychoeducational. The Psycho stem of this word connotes the psyche or the psychological make-up of the student. For example, I have worked with more than a few students who ‘believe’ they are poor readers, poor test-takers, perhaps deficient in everything. Then, upon testing, they are found to perform normally on everything, to be cognitively intact. In this case, it is the students’ anxiety or negative self-perception which has led them astray from reality. Their psychological beliefs were inaccurate.

How can we do our part to avoid another testing admissions scandal?

As evaluators, we must provide informed consent at the outset with no expectation of assuring access to accommodations. We must educate clients about their perceptions and the reality of a normal range of strengths and weaknesses. We must possess the courage to accurately reflect and convey the results of the psychological testing even when it disappoints our clients. This is the only way to maintain the integrity of the intention of the ADA and the ADAAA. Access to accommodations was not intended for gifted or hard-working students who want to perform a little bit better, it was intended for persons who truly struggle and suffer from legitimate disabilities.

At the end of the day, helping students perform to the best of their ability by letting them know that there is nothing wrong with them, is a gift. Our children must learn to live, thrive, and compete in a world full of people who are both more and less capable. They must find their strengths and where to shine. For many students, they will not shine on standardized testing, and we must let them know this is OKAY. They can have bright futures without high SAT scores. Didn’t we?