Testing accommodations four times national average

Affluent districts are more likely to abuse accommodations

According to documents posted on New Trier’s website, 226 of 935, or 24 percent, of Juniors taking April’s school wide ACT received some sort of accommodation for the test, a number confirmed by administrative staff.

If that number seems high, it’s because it is. According to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) , in 2012, only 2 percent of all standardized test takers took an exam with an accommodation, and 5 percent of high school juniors took the ACT with one. At an average high school in America, it would take 20 students to find one receiving an accommodation on the ACT or SAT; at New Trier, it would take just 4.

This isn’t necessarily because more New Trier students receive special education services or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In fact, New Trier is right on par with the rest of the country: according to the Illinois School Board of Education’s (ISBE) annual school report, 15 percent of New Trier’s students receive special education services, just a bit above the national average of 13 percent.

According to a study done by the GAO, 74 percent of accommodations for standardized tests nationwide are for extended time while others can be for extra breaks, English translations, physical handicaps, among others.

Highland Park and Lake Forest had similar numbers receiving accommodations—around 17 percent in 2012—according to state data, numbers that have presumably risen since then, like New Trier’s.

New Trier is somewhat of an outlier in the results of these tests; NT students in 2016 averaged around a 28 on the ACT, one of the highest averages of any non-selective public high school in the nation.

“Extended time really helps me, and I’ve had an IEP for a while,” said an anonymous New Trier Junior. “I think it’s fair for me and a lot of other people who really need these accommodations to help them succeed.”

Both the SAT and the ACT rely heavily on the school and the student to determine if an accommodation is appropriate. Both tests look for early diagnosis and frequent use of an IEP, but many students see accommodations given out to those who don’t have that kind of history.

“I know so many of my friends get extra time who don’t have ADHD,” said another student. “Both of my sisters got it, and I know for a fact they don’t have any kind of disability. I even know someone who just went up to their parents junior year, asked for it, and then got it.”

A number of kids feeling the academic pressure at New Trier seek an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis to give them an advantage on the ACT when private tutoring isn’t enough. Contrary to less affluent areas, parents are very aware of accommodation opportunities and the school is well equipped at getting them for their children after a diagnosis.

ADHD remains over-diagnosed throughout the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims on their website that only 5 percent of children really have ADHD according to medical studies, but many psychiatrists believe that over 15 percent of American adolescents are diagnosed.

Students with ADHD are typically treated with stimulant drugs that are said to equal the playing field. When these students get extended time on top of their Adderall, some claim it can give them an advantage over those without ADHD in the first place.

“A lot of times in class it’s hard for me to focus, but once I get the standardized test I’m going to pay attention because that is really important.” said another Junior. “I don’t use extra time for any other test at New Trier and it can really help a lot for people taking the ACT.”

Diagnoses can be as simple as just prescribing Adderall or Ritalin to a child before waiting to see if it improves school performance. The problem is that amphetamine drugs have been proven to increase academic performance for all adolescents when given an appropriate dosage; those without the disorder are just more vulnerable to the drug’s serious side effects.

Faking ADHD is also easier than many think. According to a study done by Professor David Berry at the University of Kentucky, a group of students with ADHD and a group of students who were told to fake ADHD were presented to a psychiatrist who did not know which kids truly had been diagnosed.

Neuropsychological tests were not able to differentiate between those with ADHD and those faking it.

“I have definitely seen New Trier students try to come into my office and fake ADHD.” said Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Alfreda Grosrenaud.

“I can usually detect it because they say the words that are in textbooks and on websites. It stems from the academic pressure and stresses put on them at New Trier. There are other psychiatrists in the area that still prescribe medication to these adolescents and it has become a big problem in our community,” said Grosrenaud.

A diagnosis can be tempting for many, as extended time on the ACT could vastly improve a score, giving the student a better opportunity at gaining acceptance into prestigious universities.

But this might not be just a “New Trier thing.”

A California audit in 2000 revealed that students receiving accommodations in the state were disproportionately white and affluent even though kids growing up in adverse circumstances are more likely to have a disability like ADHD, according to the CDC.

Even so, New Trier still has a higher special education population than schools located in impoverished areas. 82 percent of students at Senn High School in Chicago qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2016, but only 6 percent were enrolled in special education.

The opposite happens at New Trier and other similar schools, where just 4 percent of students qualified for reduced lunch. Even neighboring Evanston saw a smaller number of students in special education programs, despite 43 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch.

Journalist Alan Schwarz, who authored the book “ADHD Nation,” which reveals the widespread misdiagnosis of ADHD, sees this same disparity.

“Parents in communities like New Trier-and mine, I grew up in Westchester County, New York — will do anything to get their kids into the best colleges, and if that means an extra hour on the SATs for a questionable (if not downright bogus) diagnosis, then so be it.”

There’s no getting around the fact that New Trier and its students gain an advantage over other less advantaged high schools. In 2012, there were several Chicago Public Schools that saw no students receive accommodations.

According to Linda Knier, New Trier Academic Services Director, the school works to support students who need it, based on evidence that shows they have special needs that need to be met.

“At New Trier, we are the facilitators, not the judges. It is the job of psychiatrists and other doctors to properly diagnose disorders such as ADHD, and if they are misdiagnosing them, that’s their fault, not ours,” she said.

Many students have been adamant about the unfair advantage others gain from receiving extended time, especially on an such a time-constrained test like the ACT.

A high percentage of kids with accommodations aren’t trying just to get their scores above the college readiness benchmark of 20, many of these students aim for scores in the 30s and compete with other students for acceptance into some of the more prestigious universities in the country.

“I watched my sister struggle with an IEP for years so it really makes me mad when I look over my shoulder and see kids in my honors classes getting extra time on tests and getting better grades than I do,” said junior Lilly Frentzel. “I even know someone who got extended time on the ACT for her birthday. It’s ridiculous and infuriating for me. Who is gonna get extended time at his or her job?”

Some accommodation recipients even claim that their extended time gives them a better opportunity to score higher on the test. The science section on the ACT, which asks 40 questions in 35 minutes, can be much easier for students who have more time to read through the passages.

“The science section is supposed to be extremely time constrained, but with my extra time, I can read through the passage a few times and gain a full understanding,” said an anonymous student. “There isn’t any reason I should get a question wrong.”

Knier claims New Trier’s superior scores are due primarily to the intelligence and education of our student body, not by the number of students receiving accommodations.

“It’s really the talent pool and the education that students receive here at New Trier. Students here are surprised at how college-ready they are when they go to college. That’s what I attribute our high scores to,” she said.

Some, like Knier, claim that the number of students with accommodations is irrelevant because standardized tests aren’t meant to be equal, they are meant to be equitable.

While equality is just making sure that everyone is treated the exact same way, “equity” makes sure that every student gets what they need to be successful.

Colleges say they want to see how students complete assignments under timed conditions, or else they wouldn’t consider the test in the application process.

When perhaps a quarter of the grade gets accommodations, some claim it can actually be inequitable for those who have to prove their skills to the same schools under standard conditions.

“The disparity between us and other high schools is alarming,” said an anonymous student. “I think it might be unfair for kids without extended time just because the kids with it could skew the results of people taking it normally. If accommodations are going to be allowed, then the colleges should know when takers receive them.”

But that can’t happen. According to the American Disabilities Act (ADA), college applicants don’t have to release information about a learning disability if they don’t want to, so when someone takes a test with an accommodation, the colleges have no idea.

Certain professors and doctors, some more controversial than others, even debate whether any accommodations are appropriate for something claiming to be standard.

Boston University professor Ari Trachtenberg said that since accommodations have no set criteria, the entire process loses its credibility.

“Accommodations must be specific to circumstances, and transparently published for specific disabilities, just like grading rubrics and curves.” he said. “This dilutes the integrity of the academic process without providing a definable benefit, either to those students who are disabled, or to those who are not.”

Northwestern research and clinical neuropsychologist Elena Labkovsky Ph.D. questions whether a 4-hour test is actually appropriate to test the college readiness of high school students.

“There is a formula suggesting that attention span when actively paying attention under cognitive load, like sitting in class or doing homework, can be calculated as about 3-5 minutes for each year of a person’s age.”

Thus, for a 17-year-old high school student, the length of class, homework, or a test should be around 51-85 mins.

“So, you can see that psycho-physiologically defined testing time for a high school test-taker is supposed to be much shorter than 4 hours. After about 2-2.5 hours the productivity drops drastically as it becomes more and more difficult to stay focused, level of stress increases, and fatigue accumulates,” said Labrovsky.

While standardized tests clearly have their flaws, students in affluent high school communities, like New Trier, have better resources and opportunities to receive proper medical and educational treatment of learning disabilities, a privilege they evidently have taken advantage of, and at times abused.

In the song “So Appalled,” rapper Jay-Z asks, “Would you rather be underpaid or overrated?” This may not seem like a complicated question, taking more money over losing some integrity may be the easy answer for most. But it can get complicated.

Each year New Trier sends hundreds more accommodation requests to testing companies than most other high schools in the state.

For some this begs the question if it is fair that New Trier has higher test scores and receives a higher ranking than schools with lower test scores and less accommodations. Which leads to the complication: what does it mean to achieve such high test scores if a significantly higher than average percentage of students feel the need to push for an ADHD diagnosis to get them?

“There are just too many variables to consider when making special accommodations for students to make the test truly equitable,” said Knier. “The best thing would be to give an option for students with special needs to get exempt from the mandatory assessment. Right now we are just here for the students. If they have evidence that they need an accommodation, we will try to the best of our ability to get that for them.”