Several recent newspaper investigations have found a surge in affluent parents obtaining Section 504 plans for their kids, which entitles the students to more time on tests, including AP exams and the SAT/ACT.

Should clock be ticking during SAT and other high-stakes tests?

Affluent parents take advantage of loopholes to earn their kids more time on exams

The college admissions scandal revealed a strategy of affluent parents to boost their children’s SAT scores. Taking advantage of loose rules, savvy parents manipulate the federal requirements so their kids receive extra time on tests.

Parents turn to medical professionals to diagnose their child with a health condition that qualifies for a Section 504-designation.  The designation addresses accommodations rather than instruction, and aims to create a level playing field for kids with learning challenges by granting them more time for tests or extended deadlines for assignments.

A Wall Street Journal investigation in May found that Section 504 plans more than tripled from 2000 to 2016, and white students represented 64 percent of those getting them. In some affluent high schools, the Journal noted as many as one out of three test-takers were approved for additional time.  

The New York Times did a similar analysis in June, looking at the extra-time accommodations among students taking the high-stakes test that determines admission to New York City’s highly regarded “exam” high schools. It, too, found a spike in white students with special testing accommodations. It also found that the extra-time accommodation paid off.

The Times reported:

White students in New York City are 10 times as likely as Asian students to have a 504 designation that allows extra time on the specialized high school entrance exams. White students are also twice as likely as their black and Hispanic peers to have the designation. Students in poverty are much less likely to have a 504 for extra time. And students who have this extra-time provision are about twice as likely to receive offers from specialized high schools, according to a New York Times analysis of newly released city data.

The recent college admissions bribery scandal has raised fresh questions about how white and wealthy students have maintained their access to prized colleges and universities — some say at the expense of equally talented but less privileged Asian, black and Hispanic students.

In July, the Times looked at the national surge in parents seeking Section 504 plans, concluding: 

From Weston, Conn., to Mercer Island, Wash., word has spread on parenting message boards and in the stands at home games: A federal disability designation known as a 504 plan can help struggling students improve their grades and test scores. But the plans are not doled out equitably across the United States.

In the country’s richest enclaves, where students already have greater access to private tutors and admissions coaches, the share of high school students with the designation is double the national average. In some communities, more than one in 10 students have one — up to seven times the rate nationwide, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.

In Weston, where the median household income is $220,000, the rate is 18 percent, eight times that of Danbury, Conn., a city 30 minutes north. In Mercer Island, outside Seattle, where the median household income is $137,000, the number is 14 percent. That is about six times the rate of nearby Federal Way, Wash., where the median income is $65,000.

The Minneapolis Post just reported the state of Minnesota has seen a big increase in 504 plans, but not in every district: 

The rate at which Minnesota students receive accommodations for conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression and others has increased by about ten-fold in two decades, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education.

In 2000, about 2 out of every 1,000 students enrolled in Minnesota public schools had “504 plans,” which provide for things things like extra time on tests or extended deadlines on assignments. In 2019, that number was 16 out of every 1,000 students, a MinnPost analysis of MDE data shows.

But the data also show 504 plans aren’t up everywhere: they’re most prevalent in some of Minnesota’s wealthier school districts.

In a new article in Education Next, education journalist Greg Toppo delves into why the SAT is a timed test in the first place, talking to researchers, and psychologists about whether there’s a compelling rationale.

Toppo writes:

More broadly, they ask: If success in college is about 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, close reading, and collaboration, should gate-keeping tests such as the SAT be timed at all? Advocates argue that making the test untimed for everyone would make it harder for rich or well-connected parents to game the system, and also might do a better job of measuring students’ true capabilities.

“How do we measure whether people have the capacity to do deep thinking and be thoughtful?” asked Ohio State University law professor Ruth Colker. “My hypothesis is: it’s by giving them enough time to do deep thinking and be thoughtful.” The ability to answer test questions quickly, she added, is itself “a skill—and it’s a skill that that can be learned. But I think we tremendously overweight that skill.”

Toppo interviews Nicole Ofiesh, a cognitive behavioral scientist who directs Stanford University’s Schwab Learning Center and writes: 

Like Ohio State’s Colker, Ofiesh pointed out that most observers don’t even stop to ask, Why are high-stakes tests like the SAT timed at all? “Very few test agencies will give you an adequate answer to that,” she said. “It’s almost always an administrative reason: ‘It’s because that’s the only way we can do it in an efficient way.’”

 

Are there benefits to timed tests? Even as someone who works in a profession where deadlines are essential, I can’t see much real-life usefulness in the rigid time limits of the SAT and the ACT.

If the issue is to see what students know how to do, why do they have to do it in 180 minutes? And if the testing system is so ripe for exploitation by wealthy parents, why not rethink whether it’s really fair?

Your thoughts?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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