How the college admissions scandal hurt students with disabilities | Opinion

By Joseph Rogan

The recently discovered national college admissions scandal creates many problems, but it especially harms students with real disabilities.

That parents paid a corrupt private counselor tens of thousands of dollars to fudge their children’s college applications raises concerns about their ethics, but also about the admission standards and processes of the colleges and universities that accepted the corrupted students. Maybe I am naive, but over the years, I have worked with admissions officers at many colleges and universities. In making their decisions, each of them took the time to consider many variables — not just SAT scores. I never met one who might be conned by a faked application.

I also worked with hundreds of public school guidance counselors who did their jobs — they wanted to get their students accepted at colleges and universities that had the right mix of majors, programs and support services. I know some worked under a great deal of pressure applied by parents, but I never met one who was willing to lie to get a student accepted. 

Clearly, the ongoing scandal is taking place outside the boundaries of typical public and private schools. The counselor, parents, admissions officials, coaches, and students who violated traditional standards and practices deserve punishment.

I am mostly concerned, though, about the latest revelation that over the last few years the number of students diagnosed with disabilities in order to make them eligible for extra time on standardized tests increased dramatically. If the players in the scandal can fake diagnoses, students with real disabilities are the victims.

Thirty years ago, Misericordia University launched its Alternative Learners Program (ALP), the state’s first collegiate program for students with primarily learning disabilities. Our first order of business was to create an admissions process that fairly selected students with legitimate disabilities who were otherwise qualified to succeed in college. Typically, the diagnosis occurred in elementary school when they demonstrated trouble learning to read; it did not suddenly manifest when they had to take the college boards as high school students. 

We did our best to verify that applicants were otherwise qualified, that they had the ability to succeed despite their disabilities. When we received calls from counselors or parents about the Scholastic Aptitude Test, we were honest. First, we told them that the SATs do not really predict anything. Second, we explained that the tests were not normed on students with disabilities so the scores of students’ with disabilities were simply not valid and thus were useless in making decisions. Third, when some wondered whether students should take the tests with extra time, we noted that doing that completely defeated the standardization routines of the standardized test, thus scores from untimed tests were also invalid and, therefore, useless. Every college admission officer and service provider knows that.

We found other information to be far more useful. Scores on IQ tests were sometimes informative, but we mostly valued letters of recommendation from teachers of college-prep courses who said things like “this student struggled, worked hard, never gave up, and succeeded.” Maybe their grades were not always great, but those who took real courses were far better prepared for college. Applicants who took easy courses or “adapted” special courses were just not prepared.

Misericordia’s program became the state’s model. We helped many colleges and universities implement our simple recipe. First, we tell applicants, their families, and whatever support personnel were in the mix that, if accepted, the students would take nothing but real college-level, program-required courses from real professors. We never promise alternative courses and never promise that our professors would adjust their standards or requirements in any way. Moreover, we never would ask them to do so. 

Then we promise three other things: First, based on the details of their diagnostics we would provide students with the reasonable accommodations they needed, not necessarily those they got in high school. The federal law that requires “specially designed instruction” in basic education does not pertain to higher education. When diagnostics say a student needs extra time on tests and when the students actually used extra time in high school, we arrange to provide that — most often, time and a half.

Professors give us copies of their tests — the same taken by other students. We carefully proctor the testing sessions during which we never answer any content questions or otherwise give test takers an unfair advantage. When they used up their extra time, we stopped the test and gave everything back to the professors who score our ALP students’ tests in exactly the same way they score all other students’ tests. Students, who flunk, flunked.

In addition, we promised to try to teach our students how to meet the demands of their courses. Many of us teach students to use learning strategies developed for high school and college students by the Kansas University’s Center for Research in Learning. For example, when a student’s diagnostics suggest the learner has difficulty taking multiple-choice tests, we might provide extra time, but primarily we would teach them how to take that kind of test. Often the strategies eliminated the need for accommodations.

The combination of rigorous regular education, reasonable accommodations, and learning strategies is usually sufficient. We did not and could not guarantee success, but over three decades students served by ALP posted GPAs about the same as other students in their majors and they graduated at about the same rate. Hundreds of students with disabilities who did not otherwise have a chance went on to careers as teachers, social workers, business professionals, therapists, and nurses. Our recipe worked; however, it would not work for students with faked disabilities. Nothing does.

When corrupt families pull strings for fake diagnostics, programs like ALP and students with actual disabilities suffer. Sadly, the college admissions scandal jeopardizes programs that help students with disabilities succeed. That is terribly unfair.

Joseph Rogan, Ed.D., is a professor emeritus of teacher education at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

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