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Receiving Testing Accommodations for Learning Disabilities

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Many talented, bright high school students have diagnosed -- or undiagnosed -- learning disabilities. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately one in seven Americans has some type of disability, including dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and many others. While history has certainly proven that individuals with learning disabilities are capable of achieving high levels of academic success -- Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas Edison providing just a few examples -- it is also true that students with learning disabilities will face certain challenges in scholastic pursuits, including standardized testing. Fortunately, both the College Board and ACT Inc. are aware of these challenges and offer tailored, individual accommodations for test-takers with learning disabilities. These include extra time, breaks during the test, the use of a computer, and the use of a private room. To be eligible for such accommodations, a student needs to demonstrate both how his or her learning disability impacts test taking, and how the requested accommodations will help the test-taking process better reflect a student's aptitude.

If you have a learning disability, and you believe that receiving accommodations will help you to achieve a higher score, proactivity is key. If you do receive the accommodations, testing boards will not flag your test, or otherwise indicate that you have received the accommodations to admissions officers, so there is no disadvantage to trying for them if you believe they might benefit you. If you do decide to apply for accommodations, here is what you'll need to know:

▪ You need an official evaluation that documents your disability. Testing agencies tend to prefer evaluations performed by trained school staff over private psychologists, but both are acceptable. Make sure that the pertinent information is easy to find. If the diagnosis is buried under multiple pages of paperwork, ask your school psychologist to summarize the findings in a cover letter.

▪ Your request has a better chance of being approved if you have a long history of documentation. Testing agencies have become warier of students who get evaluated for learning disabilities right before a standardized test -- suspicious that students may be applying for accommodations that they don't actually need. Consequently, the College Board (which administers the PSAT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, AP exams) requires a learning disability diagnosis at least four months prior to the test; the ACT wants documentation at least a year prior to the test. Students with a learning disability diagnosis in high school are going to be under more scrutiny than those who were diagnosed in elementary or middle school.

▪ Testing agencies want to see that you use the requested accommodations on a regular basis at school. In order to ensure the validity of your request, the testing agencies will want to see documentation that you have been using specific testing accommodations in school for a significant period of time. If you are using support services in the classroom, ask your teachers to describe these services in writing.

▪ If you want to apply for testing accommodations, make sure that you submit your paperwork early. Although the vast majority of applicants eventually receive accommodations -- the College Board approves 85 percent of accommodation requests and ACT, Inc. signs off on 92 percent -- it is not uncommon for the testing agencies to ask for more paperwork or for them to turn you down the first time you submit a request. I suggest getting your application in at least six months in advance of your first test.

▪ Some students need to appeal the decision two or three times before the agency finally gives in. Because the testing agencies want to see a long history of documented learning disability accommodations, your chance of having to appeal a rejection are higher if you have been diagnosed as a teenager rather than earlier in life. Don't give up if you feel strongly that you need these accommodations to do well on these important tests. Most requests eventually get approved.