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How disabled students could pay the price


The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

When Veronica Soliz’s son took the SAT, he was granted an hour and a half of extra time for the entire test through a disability accommodation. 

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The mother of an autistic child said she was thankful he got that, not even realizing then they could have asked for more time and having also been denied other accommodations he requested.

So when she read the news Tuesday that children of TV celebrities and wealthy elites in some cases had been granted twice that amount of time her son got for disabilities they allegedly fabricated, she was in disbelief. 

In what authorities are calling the largest-ever college admissions bribery case, wealthy families allegedly paid college coaches and admission test insiders to rig the system and get their children admitted to top-tier universities by faking disabilities and athletic recruitment.

“To see that somebody just paid for what we’ve been dealing with his whole life, it was just a gut punch,” Soliz said. “It’s way too hard for us to get what we need and way too easy for people like Felicity Huffman.”

Now, Soliz, other parents and advocates fear the scandal could jeopardize what is already a stressful and arduous process for students with legitimate needs to get disability accommodations to level the playing field in the college admissions process.

How students who need accommodations get them

The College Board, which administers the SAT, and the ACT have specific guidelines for what students must submit and what students can receive when requesting accommodations while taking the tests. 

Forms also vary depending on disability, so a student who has ADHD must submit different documentation compared to those with autism.

In many cases, students from public schools already have mandated individualized education plans that specify the accommodations they receive daily in their classrooms. The documentation and testing needed to create those plans are then submitted to the testing companies to apply for similar accommodations on exam day.

Whether students have an up-to-date plan already or must get the documentation before taking the admissions tests, the process ofapproval for accommodations can be “very adversarial” for families to prove a disability to a testing company, said Matthew Cortland, a disability rights attorney based in Massachusetts.

The breadth of the accommodations in the scheme “was very astonishing to me because it’s so difficult to get those kinds of things,” said Nicole Jorwic, director of rights policy at The Arc, a non-profit advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

This combination of images shows college campuses, clockwise from top left, Georgetown University, Stanford University, Yale University, and University of California, Los Angeles. (Photo: AP)

Nadine Finigan-Carr and her son, who has autism, started the process in February of his junior year. 

He didn’t have an updated plan on record because he attended a private school. The family had to find specialists, sit for the necessary tests and complete the various forms needed to send to the College Board and ACT.

It wasn’t until summer that Finigan-Carr’s son was approved for the accommodations he needed. By then he could only take the tests once in the fall, unlike many of his peers who took the tests multiple times to try to improve their scores.

“This was not something that we just got somebody to sign a piece of paper to do,” Finigan-Carr said.

Cortland said Finigan-Carr’s experience is shared by many families whose children require special accommodations.

“This isn’t stuff you’re going to get from your family physicians,” he said. “This is hardcore psycho-educational testing.”

More: College admissions scandal was a long time coming. Here’s how the system got so rigged.

Jorwic thinks it has become harder for families to be approved for accommodations due to fears that some are seeking extra time they don’t need.

Soliz’s son requested extra time, longer breaks, a quiet room because noise can bother him and MP3 audio readouts of questions in word problem and comprehension sections, like the audiobooks he used for school textbooks.

“It’s not like we’re asking for the world,” she said. While he got extra time and was happy with his score, he was denied the MP3 audio and Soliz said he may have done better had he had the full accommodations.

She and others also say they know that some students don’t even bother with requesting accommodations at times because they fear the process will be too stressful and they won’t get what is needed either.

More: ‘So that’s what he was up to’: Rick Singer, architect of scam, peddled a ‘side door’ to college admissions

How the elite gamed the system

In what’s become known as the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, some parents were instructed to apply for extra time for their students “including by having the children purport to have learning disabilities” to get the documentation needed for the SAT and ACT, according to court documents. 

Parents were told their children needed “to be stupid” when taking the tests to apply for the accommodations and that parents could use “our psychologist” in the scheme, court records show.

Once their requests were approved, the families would fabricate reasons to take the test at centers that were part of the scam, where proctors would change or give answers or someone else would take the test, prosecutors say.

In the end, parents allegedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for their children’s admission to schools like Stanford University, University of California at Los Angeles, Wake Forest University, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.


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‘Disgust’ for families with disabled students

What was stunning and angering for advocates and parents is how easily the system was allegedly gamed to get the accommodations that disabled students fight for.

“It is infuriating that these incredibly privileged, wealthy elites weren’t satisfied with all the advantages the system is rigged to give them,” Cortland said. “The amount of money that these people were paying … it’s sort of unimaginable for disabled families.”

For Finigan-Carr, “The first thought was disgust. I was not surprised that people would buy their way into college,” she said, but, “when I found out that they way there were doing it was by misusing the disability accommodation, I was truly disgusted.”

She also said the money they spent allegedly to rig the system could have been given to families with children who legitimately need accommodations but can’t afford to pay for testing on their own. 

Now these families and advocates fear a crackdown from both testing companies and schools in granting accommodations.

More: Do all students cheat on their college applications? No, consultants say, but there are plenty of problems.

When reached for comment, College Board and ACT didn’t respond directly to whether the process of disability accommodations would change.

“We continuously evaluate and improve our processes across ACT to ensure a level playing field for everyone, regardless of background, ability, or income,” ACT spokesperson Tarah DeSousa said in a statement.

“The College Board has a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating, and as part of that effort we work closely with law enforcement, as we did in this investigation. We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test takers who are honest and play by the rules,” Jerome White, the College Board’s spokesperson, said in a statement.

More: What colleges and universities have to do right now to clean up admissions

Jorwic explained that the last education plans created for students in high school – often the ones used for accommodations in admissions tests – are commonly used for getting accommodations in college, too, where the processes vary greatly depending on school.

If high schools take a narrow view of what a student may need for their admissions test, due to fear that testing companies will think they’re being too lenient, those final plans can make it harder for students to get access to accommodations in higher education, Jorwic said.

“I’m afraid that it’s going to shine a bad light for the kids who need accommodations when they get to college,” Finigan-Carr added. “It’s already hard enough to get that (accommodation) letter from professors … that stigma is just going to get worse.”

“Reasonable accommodations exist to level the playing field. They aren’t an advantage. They aren’t a VIP pass,” Cortland said. “When fakers abuse the system, it’s always disabled students and people who suffer.”

Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller


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