Advocating for All Students with Disabilities in their Pursuit of Post-Secondary Opportunities

Alexia Hartogensis '19, Katherine Kaneko, and Lara Damashek

Increasingly, a college degree is not enough to gain entry in the competitive job market in the United States. Amplified by the uncertain economic future following the COVID-19 pandemic, job competition and scarcity will likely see an even greater rise. Consequently, advanced degrees and admission to graduate school have almost become a prerequisite for certain career opportunities, such as law, medicine, education, and more. Yet, these careers may be out of reach for some students who require accommodations. For example, rigid testing requirements for graduate entrance exams, like the MCAT for medical school, demand that such students have documentation of an extended history of disabilities that warrant the accommodations.

Multiple factors that can preclude a student from being able to show this history include socioeconomic background, access to resources within the school district, family understanding around the complex legal issues of an IEP or 504 plan, and institutional obstacles such as misdiagnoses and lack of will within academia. The repercussions for not receiving accommodations are severe, ranging from a loss of scholarships to those students who are unencumbered by disabilities, or simply not being able to attend graduate school at all. In this article, we explore potential underlying disparities associated with accommodations in post-secondary education, including various graduate-level entrance exams; the impact a 504 plan has on a child with a disability's success; and the various structural issues underpinning awareness and education for students with disabilities.

The Implications of Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities

Accommodations are significant to leveling the playing field for students with learning disabilities, especially for students with dyslexia and language or reading disorders. Advocates point to accommodations as essential based on the needs of students with dyslexia. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity (2017), “Having accommodations doesn’t give a test-taker the answer, but it allows his/her brain the time it needs to read the question and access the higher-level thinking and reasoning systems that help the dyslexic use the context to figure out a word.” Extra time on a test is necessary for students with dyslexia, as it gives them what they need to fully demonstrate their knowledge. In a study examining the effects of extra time for disabled students, (Ziomek and Andrews, 1998) found when given two tests, one with extra time and one without, participants with learning disabilities had a higher score than students without disabilities. A dyslexic has the same potential and capabilities as a non-dyslexic; however, they process information differently. Accommodations are critical for students with disabilities to demonstrate their potential.

How does a student receive accommodations? Many students with a disability either apply for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504. These plans aim to provide a more comprehensive support system than testing accommodations alone. While an IEP and 504 plan both have the goal of enabling students to thrive, they are different. An IEP, which is covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), grants students different educational services in either special or regular academic settings (Bachrach, 2016). 504 plans are covered under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) and provide for the necessary accommodations or modifications to put students with a limiting condition or disability on the same playing field as their typically developing peers; it is an anti-discrimination law that aims to promote equal access to learning opportunities to children who suffer from disabilities. Normally, 504 plans include three major aspects: changes in the environment, changes to instruction, or changes in how materials are presented (Understood, n.d.). In addition to helping students acquire accommodations in school, a 504 plan helps students receive accommodations on standardized testing. While a 504 will not provide a student with an automatic accommodation on the SAT or ACT, it allows the school to help the student through the process (Understood, n.d.). The purpose of applying for a formal 504 plan is to aid students and their families in the procedure of receiving accommodations and make the overall task easier.

A Case Study on the MCAT and Its History of Accepting Accommodations

Documentation is essential for students to apply for accommodations in college and graduate-level entrance exams, yet certain tests have distinct requirements. Historically, the MCAT has accepted uncharacteristically low numbers of applications for accommodation. For example, in 2004, less than 1% (Julian, Ingersoll, Etienne & Higer, 2004) of students requesting accommodations on the MCAT were approved. From 2011-2013, only 0.3% of students that took the MCAT had accommodations (Applerouth, 2017). Many have claimed that the AAMC, the organization in charge of administering the MCAT, denies granting accommodations unless a student can demonstrate a track record of receiving accommodations dating back to elementary school.

A few standardized tests have changed and improved their criteria in accepting students for accommodations. These tests include the SAT and the ACT, which have reported increases in acceptances of applications in recent years. The ACT only requires a track record of a year (Applerouth, 2020) and the SAT only requires four months of documentation (CollegeBoard, 2020). Another graduate entry test, the LSAT, required for law school, will approve accommodations if the student was already approved for the ACT or SAT (LC, AC, 2020).

The restrictive nature of accommodations for post-secondary entrance exams, but particularly for the MCAT, is weighted when considered from social and economic perspectives. Disproportions in accommodations based on socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity continue as students advance in their educational careers (Yull, 2015). Students with greater resources based on geographic location or socioeconomic status benefit from earlier diagnoses, interventions, and accommodations, while students without access to these resources are not supported. In fact, studies show that the gap begins in early childhood and remains even as the students move through high school. This gap can be significant. Children of lower income families without access to early childhood education and support lag behind the average child by twelve to eighteen months (Barnett & Lamy, 2013). Lower income families are disproportionally people of color, reinforcing structural systems that impede asset accumulation and upward mobility.

Students with greater resources based on geographic location or socioeconomic status benefit from earlier diagnoses, interventions, and accommodations, while students without access to these resources are not supported.

By stark contrast, students from wealthier families or districts enjoy the longitudinal documentation that can be used as evidence when requesting accommodations in graduate school exams, especially as the MCAT requires a track record of receiving accommodations dating back to elementary school. This documentation is based on school district testing as well as independent neuropsychological evaluations, all of which are frequently beyond the reach of many families from less wealthy school districts or who lack the flexibility or financial resources to be evaluated (Reynold & Rolnick, 2015). Families for whom English is a second language or who are unfamiliar with the US educational system are also at a disadvantage in obtaining documentation and support for their children.

An issue that exacerbates the disparities in accommodations could be that students abuse extra time when they do not have disabilities, especially those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (Belkin, Levitz & Korn, 2019). If that is the case, then post-secondary entrance exams need to reconsider better testing instruments to equally measure a student's aptitude on standardized tests.

The Equity of Documentation

Documentation of a learning disability at a young age is crucial for any child who wants access to the same opportunities afforded to typically developing peers. To qualify for accommodations on standardized testing, such as those governing high school or college admission, a student must prove that they have a history of a limiting disability or impairment that has hindered their ability to learn.

Documentation of a learning disability at a young age is crucial for any child who wants access to the same opportunities afforded to typically developing peers.

As the case study of accommodations in post-secondary entrance exams such as the MCAT reveals, students with learning disabilities may experience barriers to future educational success based on geographic location or socioeconomic status. Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who have the resources to be connected to educators and professionals cognizant of the requirements, enjoy advantages of having a paper trail documenting their cognitive impairments. This, in turn, helps facilitate accommodations for high-stakes tests like the MCAT.

One illustrative example is that schools with higher rates of students who qualified for reduced lunch costs have on average 1.6% of their whole student body population registered with 504 plans. However, schools with lower rates of students qualified for reduced lunch costs have larger percentages of students with 504 plans (Belkin, Levitz & Korn, 2019). In other words, socioeconomic background correlates to access to the costly process of receiving legal support of their learning disability, like a 504 plan.

Other barriers include the manner in which the US public schools are funded. Funding public schools through real estate taxes automatically disadvantages lower income communities, where rates of home ownership and property values are less than communities with higher valued properties that garner greater real estate taxes. Further complicating the problem is the increased mobility of non-home owning families, whose children then lack continuity of documentation or support in school. Possible solutions include changing funding sources for schools from local coffers, creating a national database for students to upload documentation in a uniform manner regardless of location, and to have pediatricians, obstetricians, healthcare clinics, and schools begin informing all new parents about the signs of language-based learning disabilities or other impairments so that the families may have greater agency sooner in their child’s educational journey.

Evidence confirms that disparity in educational access and opportunity exists (UNESCO, 2018; Tawfik, Reeves & Stich, 2016; Walters, 2001); yet, research on contributing factors is complex and varied. Nevertheless, bridging the gap between theory and praxis requires dialogue not just about the causation, but also about how to remediate and eliminate these disparities (Shih, 2018). Specifically, by taking the position that an education should provide opportunities for a student to advance their social, economic, physical, and emotional well-being through accumulated knowledge and effort (Bourdieu,1986), our framework moves from being purely informative to advocative (McLaren, 2015).

Where Should the Educational System, Schools, and Parents Start?

According to the First Step Act, dyslexia is defined as “an unexpected difficulty in reading and writing for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader, most commonly caused by a difficulty in the phonological processing, which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read, and spell” (S.3747). Kindergarten and first grade might seem to be an early period in which to identify these deficits. However, unusual or anomalous aberrations in reading and writing, particularly for a student who is otherwise progressing in acquiring skills, are usually identifiable even at that age. As such, parents and educators should be alerted to markers that identify a student as needing further testing for language-based disabilities. The long-term impact of early intervention encompasses both academic and social-emotional deficits. In addition to providing students with documentation for needed remediation and services, early intervention establishes a longitudinal history of need. This evidence then translates into the student receiving accommodations at an early age and enabling the child to show need for accommodations in college and graduate school entrance exams.

Given the high costs of a diagnosis to identify language-based disabilities, many schools, particularly those with fewer resources, are often reluctant or unable to initiate intervention. On average, dyslexic assessments can cost between $1,000 to $5,000 for the two or three sessions needed to complete an evaluation. It is understandable that districts might see these costs as prohibitive, taking away resources from the greater school population for the benefit of a few. Nevertheless, the primary charge of the United States school system is to educate and elevate the population. The system must provide the resources, avenues, and education to enable all students to reach their potential. Educational support for those who strive for high academic and career achievement should be not just a regional interest, but a national priority.

Resources on Special Education Law

The parents and guardians of a child with disabilities are encouraged to keep robust documentation with their school district. Advocates will tell parents and guardians, “Do not wait until your child is remediated and looks strong on paper, or they may not qualify for an IEP or a 504 plan.” For further information, access these free resources to learn basic rights under special education law. 

What to Know Before Your IEP Meeting

  1. Bring documentation of any diagnosed learning needs or any educational recommendations from professionals working with your child (therapists, doctors, teachers, psychologists). It is always helpful to create a strong paper trail of your child’s needs.  

  1. Prepare a short statement about your child’s needs, deficits, and weaknesses. You want to explain to the district how your child’s learning challenges are significantly impacting their ability to derive a meaningful benefit from the educational environment. Prepare yourself to focus on the negative about your child, and to hear the same. You want to show that your child is not making any significant progress, and, even if the school district says they are doing fine, you can speak to why that progress is simply not enough. The law states that a student's progress must be more than de minimis. As the parent/guardian, you are a necessary and crucial member of the IEP team, and the team must consider your input.  

  1. Stress that the support you are looking for is what is appropriate and essential for your child. Under the law, a child is entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) and not the best education.  

  1. If you can, bring someone who can attend with you—an advocate, friend who works in education/has previously navigated the system of special education, or a therapist/teacher who works with your child. Talking about your child can be emotional and it is helpful to have someone there to take notes for you, ask questions, and keep you on track for securing what you are seeking.  

  1. If you do not reach the desired outcome, you can challenge any decision by invoking your due process rights.