High-stakes tests are educational assessment tests whose results have a huge bearing on a student’s future academic success. High-school exit exams are one of the most common high-stakes tests.

Accommodations for testing are an important and highly discussed topic in the learning disability community. The recent “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal involved several high-profile parents who were given the spotlight for gaming university admissions processes – sometimes by using disability accommodations to rig entrance exams. On account of this, we have seen an increase in students reporting barriers to receiving accommodations.

Are Students with Disabilities Required to Take High Stakes Tests?

Depending on the state, students with disabilities may or may not be required to take a high-stakes test. However, in general, all students must take state-mandated tests regardless of any disability. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does require that some concessions be made to students with disabilities:

  • The student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) must address what kinds of accommodations will be needed for the student to participate in educational assessments.
  • Additionally, the IEP should address the issue of the student’s graduation, whether they will take any exit exams, and if and how the test should be modified to meet their needs.
  • It may be possible to argue that your child shouldn’t have to take the high-stakes test because the material it covers isn’t covered in their curriculum.

Are There Alternatives to High Stakes Tests for Disabled Students?

The majority of states that use high-stakes tests do provide accommodations for students with disabilities. Common accommodations include:

  • Modifications to the test: Some common modifications include extended time limits, large print, and allowing a teacher to read the instructions several times.
  • Exemption: Some states exempt students with disabilities from the test and allow them to graduate without compromising their ability to earn a diploma.
  • Alternate assessment: Some states allow students with disabilities to be assessed differently to determine if they meet graduation requirements.
  • Retesting: Students have multiple opportunities to retake the test if they fail.
  • Scoring: Some states do not require students with disabilities to score as high on the standardized test to graduate.

Testing Trends of Today

The majority of prospective college students have been taking high-stakes tests in the form of entrance exams for more than 60 years. Originally, exams like the ACT (introduced in 1959) were meant to standardize the application process and increase access to higher education. Unfortunately, they now contribute to a decrease in access.

In recent years, we have seen more entities and universities acknowledge that these tests are biased, favoring privileged students and creating even more disadvantages for those with disabilities and lower socioeconomic status. Many academic institutions have responded by becoming test-optional or omitting these exams entirely.

Furthermore, testing initiatives have been altered or eliminated both temporarily and permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, a recent settlement in California further secured the trajectory of college admissions away from standardized entrance exams, urging the elimination of the SAT and ACT from the admissions process at the University of California System.

While some institutions have backed away from tests like the SAT and ACT, the majority of the top 100 colleges and universities have remained vested in test scores and gained prestige from statistics about their students’ scores. In this way, a cycle is created: competition for high test scores fuels higher standards for admission to elite schools, which leads to more competition and still higher standards.

While test score submissions declined at selective schools during 2020, they remained higher at less selective schools, according to data collected through schools using the Common Application, an application service that allows students to apply to multiple schools with one application. In addition, Asian and white students, who tend to score higher on these exams, submitted more papers overall.

A number of these barriers make it more likely that frequently marginalized groups – such as those with learning disabilities – will score lower on standardized tests. Consequently, they are less likely to gain admission to these selective schools. Selective large and small private schools, as well as selective large public schools, have the highest rate of score submission, with selective large private schools having the highest incidences of score submission overall. It is important to note, however, that the number of overall scores submitted for almost every category of school decreased between 2019 and 2020.

What Are the Benefits of ACT’s New Process for Accommodating Students With Disabilities?

Starting in the 2021-2022 school year, the ACT is adopting an easier process for accommodating students with disabilities by transferring accommodations granted in IEPs and 504 plans directly to its eponymous test. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2018 that the ACT sold sensitive disability information to colleges and scholarship agencies so as to gain an advantage over its competitor, the College Board, which administers the SAT.

Despite denying wrongdoing, ACT agreed in 2018 to stop including disability information in their sales, but the case would not be resolved until October 2020. A class-action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that led to ACT settling with students in California for $16 million dollars to avoid litigation costs and uncertainty. ACT is under pressure to appease groups that are eager to reform their system of providing accommodations and using student data. Accordingly, some may view the ACT’s recent announcement as an attempt to appease watchdogs and students who pose a legal threat and stifle the momentum of future lawsuits.

The media reported that the courts fined the ACT for selling private disability data to colleges and universities. Students who took the ACT argued that their private disability information was shared without their knowledge and prevented them from being accepted to colleges and universities because of it. The court found this practice to be in violation of the ADA. In the past, testing agencies often enforced unclear confidentiality practices regarding accommodations until they were forced by law to do so.

The fear among many students is that colleges and universities will use their private disability information to flag and deny people with disabilities admission to college, financial aid awards, and scholarships.

What If My Child Is Not Able to Graduate without Passing an Exit Exam?

Every school allows a student to graduate if they meet the state’s graduation requirements. The student may have other options for standard graduation if they are unable to meet the requirements, but the options vary from state to state. Examples include:

  • IEP Diplomas: Students with disabilities who successfully complete the program outlined in their IEP may be awarded special IEP diplomas.
  • Certificates of Achievement: If the state determines that the diploma track is not appropriate for a student, a certificate of achievement may be given instead of a diploma.
  • Occupational Diplomas: Some states award occupational diplomas to students who have completed work-study programs.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

If you have questions or concerns about high-stakes tests and how they will affect your child, you may want to contact a government lawyer. States have different laws governing high-stakes tests. An attorney can inform you about the laws and regulations in your state, as well as protect you and your child.