Scandal Aftermath: Students with Disabilities

I have a regular twice-weekly conference call with a long-time client, and we were on the phone Tuesday morning when the news hit. We were speaking on my landline, so I was able to notice when my phone started lighting up over and over again with each email I received about the situation. We sort of digested the news together before getting back to to our issues at hand. “Back to doing it the old-fashioned way!” she joked.

As the day progressed, and particularly when I came back home that night and read the entire 204-page criminal complaint, I became more disgusted by the minute. I still can’t wrap my head around how these people thought they would possibly get away with this kind of behavior. However, the entire situation has raised a number of issues in my mind that I’d like to address in the coming days. We’ll loop back to reader questions soon!

I’d like to start with the the impact of this situation on students with disabilities. I am often approached by media outlets to serve as an expert resource on matters relating to the admissions process; today, I discuss this very issue in U.S. News. I served as an SSD Coordinator for a number of years at an independent school as one of my duties as their Director of College Counseling, so I am pretty well-versed in this process. I also help a number of my own clients go through the extended time process each year, and I have a child at a Fairfax County Public School with a 504 Plan. So, I have done this as a school administrator, an outside consultant, and a parent.


I would assume that anyone reading this post is aware of the ways in which Rick Singer manipulated the SSD process, but I’ll recap just in case: he worked with families to fake disabilities during psycho-educational evaluations order to get incorrect diagnoses, then pushed the kids through the system (including repeated appeals in some cases) until they were granted extended time through their schools and testing agencies. At that point, he was able to use the relaxed regulations for students with legitimate disabilities (individual proctors, private testing environments, and so forth) to cheat the system through fraud.

This is going to make the system so. much. harder. for all the kids out there with legitimate disabilities. It honestly makes me sick to my stomach to think about. School systems in our area, as well as the College Board and ACT, are already concerned about parents “working the system” and they already make it needlessly difficult in many cases. So this will, in effect, take a broken situation and make it worse. This is going to be crushing for the students who need these accommodations and are entitled to them under federal law.

In recent years, the College Board has relaxed their standards a little bit by agreeing to give students the same level of accommodations that their school system provides them in a school-based setting. This is where kids at independent schools have an advantage, because those schools will generally give them what they need without a fight. On the other hand, I have found Fairfax County to become more and more difficult in recent years. The longer parents wait, the harder the accommodations are to get, especially for a bright child without behavioral issues. This is why I made sure that my daughter had them on record now, even though she doesn’t actually need them at the moment (she has a diagnosis to support them so this is completely on the up-and-up). I don’t want to find us in a position later where she needs them and can’t get them because she has good grades without a history of accommodations… and I see this happen ALL THE TIME!

Fortunately, from my experience as a parent, the process was very easy. Her school counselor was amazing and really advocated for her. The reason for this, I would imagine, is that most parents of first-graders aren’t out there falsifying diagnoses (give it another ten years!). However, this is not the case on the high school side. Counselors in our area see overzealous parents pushing for unnecessary accommodations, and now the kids who actually need them can’t get them as a result.

I can think of two clients in particular this year who tried to get accommodations and were turned down, and I genuinely believe that the decisions were wrong. It makes me so sad to watch them struggle when I don’t think that they have an equal playing field. I also have two separate seniors right now who had to appeal the process repeatedly - over and over again - until they were finally approved. It cost their families so much money and time. Talk about inequity - how many families have the resources to keep filing these appeals? Most Americans would not have been able to pursue it. Both of these students’ ACT scores skyrocketed once they finally got the time that they deserved, which has now had a major impact on their college choices and merit scholarship offers.

It’s not a coincidence that each of my examples above relate to female students. This didn’t make it into the story, but I actually told this reporter that I actually think that high-achieving girls are going to be the hardest hit if we see even more crack-downs because of this scandal. I referenced this recent article from the New York Times (a must read for any parent with a daughter) - as the author states, girls are “relentless” and “hyper-conscientious". Not all of them, of course, but by and large, most girls learn to over-compensate for any difficulties that they face in the classroom. The end result leads to sleepless nights, anxiety, and a feeling of never being good enough.

At the same time, they manage to squeak by with decent grades as a result of so much hard work. Their parents usually don’t realize that there is a problem until they are in tenth or eleventh grade when they simply cannot keep up anymore, or when their standardized test scores show major discrepancies when compared to their high levels of academic achievement. It’s usually too late, though, because they have already established a pattern of long-term academic success and it’s next to impossible to get the accommodations after that. Now you see why I made sure my daughter had her accommodations in place as a first-grader! I am not going to find myself in this situation if I can help it, after watching so many girls suffer needlessly.

Why so much focus on girls? Well, boys tend to react differently in a situation without needed accommodations. They are much less likely to over-compensate from an academic perspective and tend to act out behaviorally. So, teachers and parents notice at an early age and it’s just a lot less common for them to make it to tenth or eleventh grade without the help they need. It happens, just not all that often.

All in all, I sincerely hope that College Board, ACT and the school systems will take time to consider what has happened here in the context of the bigger picture before rushing to judgment. There are so many capable students who need these accommodations and rely on them for the equal opportunities they deserve.

If you would like to learn more about standardized testing, extended time, or any of these issues as they relate to your own child’s individual situation, feel free to come in for a one-time strategy session.