Will Marsh spent his early school years in Rahway, N.J., frustrated and in pain at times.
“Why am I so stupid?” the boy would tearfully ask his mother.
Things got better after he was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade and began getting support. Despite his diagnosis, Marsh couldn’t get all the accommodations he sought when it came time for him to take his college entrance exam, the SAT.
So he was particularly “perturbed” to learn some children who don’t have disabilities were approved for accommodations — such as extra time to take the test — because their wealthy parents allegedly made up their disabilities as part of an elaborate college-admissions bribery scheme unveiled by federal prosecutors earlier this month.
“It’s already hard enough to get accommodations,” said Marsh, 23, a graduate and now employee of St. Joseph’s University, who recently advocated in Washington for more support on college campuses for students with learning disabilities. “The fact that parents were able to get it right there and then just puts off future students who need accommodations as they go through their college-admissions process. It just increases the stigma students have around their learning disabilities.”
Students with a range of disabilities, including dyslexia, attention disorders, learning problems, and visual and physical impairments, can qualify for accommodations.
The SAT and its counterpart, the ACT, are administered on specific days at sites around the country under time limits, between three and four hours with breaks. Accommodations can include extended time to take the test, large print, and braille. They must be approved in advance, sometimes with documentation required, though the majority tend to be granted by the schools where students attend and already have been evaluated for disabilities.
Federal prosecutors say that as part of the bribery scheme, a consultant advised parents to have their children fake disabilities during psychological evaluations to get medical documentation that they qualify for accommodations. One parent was told to have his daughter “be stupid,” according to charging documents.
Once students qualified, parents were told to request that their children take the test at a site “controlled” by the consultant and make up a reason, such as an out-of-town wedding, that their child needed to go there. There, students were often granted permission to take the test over two days in an individualized setting, and test administrators who had accepted bribes supplied students with correct answers or corrected mistakes, according to charging documents.
Nationally, advocates of students with learning disabilities are concerned the criminal chicanery could make it more difficult for students who need accommodations to get them.
“The immediate backlash could harm individuals with real and legitimate disabilities,” said Lindsay Jones, CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “It’s already really hard to qualify” for accommodations.
The worst part, she said, is there’s no evidence extra time helps students without disabilities. Those involved in the scheme used it only as an excuse to gain access to a testing site controlled by the consultant.
Accommodations, she said, equalize the testing environment for students with disabilities.
“We’re just taking away the barrier,” she said.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, wouldn’t break down how many students who take the SAT receive accommodations, but said generally about 4 percent of the organization’s overall testing population receives them. With 2.1 million alone taking the SAT in the Class of 2018, the overall number is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. Requests for accommodations on the SAT have been on the increase, and generally about 85 percent of requests are approved, according to a 2017 article in North Jersey.com.
In the Philadelphia region, particularly on the Main Line where parents can afford the several-thousand-dollar fee for a psychological evaluation, accommodations are not uncommon, said Matthew Joseph, founder of MJ Test Prep, based in Bryn Mawr and Chestnut Hill. Learning disabilities tend to be uncovered and addressed quickly in competitive schools because parents whose children fall behind are assertive about seeking answers, he said.
That tends to be the case nationally in areas of higher socioeconomic status, he said.
“Parents who send kids to these schools put a premium on education and they want to discover how to maximize their child’s potential, and that’s when they come across a learning disability,” he said.
His company also helps less privileged students and sometimes finds their parents weren’t aware they could seek accommodations, he said.
“Despite great efforts by educators, it’s not always an equal playing field in the world of education,” he said.
But he added that he’s not seen any cases like those described in the federal indictment.
In the wake of the scandal, the College Board said in a statement that it has “a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating” and worked closely with law enforcement on the case.
“We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test-takers who are honest and play by the rules,” the organization said.
The ACT issued a similar statement.
For Marsh, who got his political science degree in 2018 at St. Joe’s and works there as a web developer, dyslexia posed hurdles and frustrations, even after his diagnosis. Multiple times, he had to be reevaluated, in a sense having to prove his disability again, he said.
Then the College Board denied his request to use a laptop for the essay portion. His dyslexia affects spelling and he wanted access to use spell check. He was granted extra time to take the test.
"Knowing how much scores can be meaningful for college admissions gave me anxiety,” he said.
He took the test twice and improved his score by 200 points. He was accepted at St. Joe’s, his top choice, and got all the accommodations he needed, he said, including extended time on tests and some assignments, use of a laptop, and a waiver for the foreign-language requirement.
“English is already hard enough for me,” he explained.
He also became an advocate for other college students with disabilities.
According to the national center, 94 percent of students with learning disabilities received accommodations in high school, but only 17 percent in college.