By Monica McHale-Small, LDA Board Member and Co-Chair of the Public Policy & Advocacy Committee
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a story entitled, Many More Students, Especially the Affluent, Get Extra Time to Take the SAT. As a former public school psychologist and school district administrator, I ‘recognized’ points in the story from my own time in more affluent school districts. I can readily acknowledge that affluent parents are far more likely to understand their child’s educational rights, have the resources to exercise those rights, and ensure their children get what they need. The story references high schools where 25 to 30 percent of students are receiving accommodations such as extended time on the SAT’s. Yes, this seems preposterously high and strongly suggests that fraud may be an issue.
Frist, I want to acknowledge that affluent students are not free from academic struggles and individuals of means are certainly not immune to disability. One only need to look to the many prominent and wealthy dyslexics who have shared their stories of late for affirmation. In fact, in a recently book published by Anthony Rostain and B. Janet Hibbs, notes that as many as 25 percent of college students are arriving on campus with prescriptions for psychotropic medications. Perhaps these students never received special education services but, despite their privileged backgrounds, these students are struggling with very real disabilities.
The WSJ article goes on to suggest that there are some students whose parents may have the means to ‘buy’ a bogus diagnosis. I can absolutely attest to the fact, based on my own lived experiences, that there are some less than ethical professionals out there who may document that a disability exists where there is none. But, as noted by the College Board in the article, within the population of students receiving accommodations, there is “a small number who are exploiting the system.” Yes, fraud exists but it is the exception not the norm.
As I read this WSJ article, the sentence that most resonated for me is a quote from Headmaster Byron Hulsey who noted, “Many poorer families can’t afford such testing even if they are aware of the process.” As a now retired public school educator, I spend time advocating for students with special needs in the school district where I live; a district with a sizable population of low income families. What I come across time and time again are students who have reached high school with significantly deficient academic skills and who have never been evaluated for learning or other disabilities let alone given proper intervention. Many of these students are talented and intellectually capable and certainly have the ability to succeed in college given access to the right instruction and supports. Truth be told, it is not only disadvantaged parents who often lack the knowledge and resources to advocate for their children. There are many educated, middle class parents who struggle to understand the rights of their children. As I helped my own children with learning disabilities access disability services at their chosen colleges and universities, I often stopped and reflected on the difficulty of navigating these systems. I wondered what it must be like for parents who did possess my training and 27 years of experience working with and advocating for students with disabilities.
My wish is that the Wall Street Journal would spend their efforts not highlighting the relatively small number of unscrupulous, privileged people taking what they do not need or deserve. Rather, I would applaud an effort to investigate how it is that countless students, many who are low income or culturally or linguistically diverse, who are never afforded the rights that the IDEA and Section 504 are supposed to guarantee.