The Disability Gap

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

Nationwide, under 2% of students have learning disabilities severe enough to qualify for extra time on the SAT. In private school Manhattan, the percentage is substantially greater. And that means dramatically higher scores.

At Horace Mann high school in affluent Riverdale, New York, one of the top schools in the country, those who receive double time on tests are plentiful enough to qualify as their own segment of the student body. Known to their peers as 2Ts, they participate in the same activities, get the same grades, and attend the same range of colleges, from middling to prestigious. One student I tutored scored just ten points shy of a perfect score on her SAT and got accepted to Harvard, all while receiving double time on the test. In short, line up a group of Horace Mann students, interview them and take a look at their resumes, and you'll be hard pressed to pick out the students who require extra time. So then, what qualifies these students to receive special accommodations on the SAT?

Learning disabilities are ascribed to a number of causes -- from dyslexia to ADHD to physical handicaps -- but can be reduced to the same concept: that speed of learning is an issue quite unrelated to intelligence, and that the student who takes twice as long to grasp a reading passage won't necessarily emerge with any less profound an understanding. Until 2003, students who took the SAT under non-standard conditions would have their scores flagged. As the test-makers themselves officially report, extra time "may overcompensate for some students, permitting them to respond more leisurely and result in overpredictions of college performance," so word in the test-prep community was that college admissions committees would therefore unofficially deduct around seventy points from scores so marked. But in 1999, when the Educational Testing Service was sued by a disabled student who contended that flagging his extra time was unfair, ETS settled out of court and agreed to mark abnormal test administrations no longer. Once that stigma was removed, getting extra time became an irrefutably favorable proposition -- 150% or even 200% of the time other students receive, and colleges will never know.

Little wonder, then, that ambitious families maximize every opportunity to obtain extra time. ETS doesn't release statistics on regional variations in special accommodations, but after years working in test prep under an umbrella group that employs a hundred other tutors to do the same, I found the portion of Manhattan students receiving extra time on the SAT to come up near 40% -- nationwide, it's under 2%. It's not that there's something funny in the water on Park Avenue. The discrepancy stems from a competitive island atmosphere, to be sure, but it is also undeniable that pursuing extra time accommodations requires money -- a lot of it. The process must be begun years in advance of the SAT, and involves extensive psychiatric evaluations and the backing of a school that has the sufficient impetus and resources to champion the student to ETS. The process is institutionalized in Manhattan private schools, but requires tremendous initiative and time/money elsewhere -- it is not a fight most working mothers are equipped to win. And the typical parent who hears about extended time possibilities only when he receives SAT registration materials during his kid's junior year is already too late.

Higher SAT scores mean better college matriculation rates, so it's no wonder that private schools in ultra-competitive environments would grease the qualifying process as much as possible. And for the students who receive special accommodations -- again, with the Manhattan numbers many times the national average -- the benefits are tremendous. Double time students take the test over a weekend, with a chance to go home and profit from a night's rest halfway through. On the new SAT, the benefits are even more exaggerated. Imagine an essay written in twenty-five minutes being directly compared to one written in fifty. And that doesn't factor in even more unusual accommodations -- students permitted to write the essay on a keyboard, taking the test in a private chamber for social anxiety disorder, or dictating responses to a scribe.

It would be naïve to presume that the wealthier, more resource-rich and cut-throat pockets of American society wouldn't find a way to secure their advantage. Manhattan families hire elite tutors for hundreds of dollars an hour -- with average score increases of three hundred points -- and maneuver their way into special accommodations which can garner as much as a hundred more points. The combined advantage is astounding. Take two students of equal intelligence and equal intellectual nurturing, but one lives in New Hampshire and one in Manhattan. A 1750 or a 2120 on the SAT. Consider which you'd admit to your university (itself ranked in U.S. News and World Report by average SAT score), and wonder at how the American aristocracy maintains its power and prestige.