A Guide to Disability Accommodations for Standardized Testing
By nature of their standardization, standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT often do not take into account the different needs of students with disabilities. As a result, these exams can be exponentially harder for students with disabilities, which can result in a lower score. However, the administrators of these exams seek to give every student a fair shot at demonstrating their knowledge, so standardized tests offer disability accommodations for eligible students. Disability accommodations allow students to have an equal shot at success on these exams as their peers. Read on for more information on what accommodations are available and how you can be approved to take your tests with accommodations.
What accommodations can standardized tests make for students with disabilities?
If you have a disability that will significantly impact your ability to take the test in the standard way it is offered, test administrators can make changes in how the test is administered in order to provide you a fair testing opportunity. Think of it as leveling the playing field, not an easy way out of studying or working hard. Additionally, accommodations may or may not cover the entire test, depending on your needs. Sometimes, students will be granted accommodations on the math section, but not the reading, or vice versa. It all depends on what you need and how test takers determine to meet these needs.
Some examples of accommodations include Braille or audio exams, use of a computer to write essays, additional time or breaks, large-bubble answer sheets, a scribe to record your responses, and other test formats that work with any assistive technology you may have. These are some of the more frequently requested options, but test administrators will consider other options tailored to your disability if they believe them to be better options for you.
Should I request an accommodation if I think I might need one?
If you think you might need accommodations, you should first check to see if your situation qualifies. Usually, your disability must be diagnosed by a doctor and documented according to certain standards. Different types and degrees of documentation are needed according to disability and accommodations being requested, but examples include psychoeducational evaluations or a doctor’s report.
Additionally, your situation must directly impact your performance on the exam. So, it must be a disability that impacts a testing situation and would unfairly jeopardize your chances of performing well. According to the College Board, these disabilities are those that limit your ability to read, write, or sit for extended periods of time. When you request accommodations, you should be able to demonstrate these difficulties – in other words, provide documentation to show that the accommodation you requested will actually help meet your needs.
Next, you should talk to your parents, school guidance counselor, and any therapists or medical professionals you see about your disability to figure out what accommodations would be best for you. It is best to get this conversation started early, as the College Board says that accommodations requests can take up to seven weeks to be finalized, and the ACT takes two weeks (after you have submitted all required documents).
Keep in mind that you need to specifically request an accommodation even if you are already approved by your school for in-school accommodations. Even if you have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan that includes an accommodation, you are not guaranteed accommodations on standardized tests.
Furthermore, if you are planning on taking both the ACT and the SAT (or SAT subject tests, the PSAT, or AP exams) you will need to be approved separately by the College Board (which governs the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, PSAT, and AP exams) and by the ACT (which offers only the ACT assessment). Accommodations for one do not guarantee accommodations for the other.
How do I request an accommodation on a test?
Each test (College Board tests or the ACT) has a specific procedure to be followed when you register for accommodations.
College Board tests (SAT, SAT Subject Tests, PSAT, and the AP exams) are all administered by one central organization, so you only have to apply once to be approved for accommodations on all of them. You must submit a request through the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). This is usually facilitated by a guidance counselor or educator at your school who is an SSD Coordinator. Then, you will need to submit documentation of the disability and documentation that demonstrates how the accommodation requested will help meet your needs. This process is also largely facilitated by the SSD Coordinator at your school, who will submit the documents online through the SSD. (Your parent or guardian will first need to sign a Parent Consent Form, unless you are 18 or older, in which case, you must sign it yourself.)
After all the paperwork has been submitted, the SSD Coordinator can sign into SSD at any time to view the status of the application. When it has been decided, both you and the SSD Coordinator will be notified (students are usually sent the decision by post). If approved, you will receive an ID number that you submit (sometimes with additional documentation, which is described in your decision announcement) each time you register for a College Board test and then you will receive your accommodations.
The ACT has a similar process. First, you must register for the ACT, just as any student would, and indicate that you need accommodations. Then, select the accommodations you need (this is why it is helpful to plan with your parents, counselor, and doctor ahead of time) and complete your registration.
You will then receive an email from the ACT with accommodation instructions. You should complete the Consent to Release Information form, and forward the form, along with the email from the ACT, to your school official. From there your school official will submit your request to the ACT. The ACT will then review your application and notify your school official of the decision. For this reason, it is essential that you stay in communication with your school official. After you have submitted your application, the whole deliberation process should take two weeks before you hear back.
They are both involved processes, but it is far better to request the accommodation than to not request it but end up needing it. Furthermore, once the College Board has approved your request for accommodations, it will apply to all College Board tests that you take – SAT and SAT Subject Tests, PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10, and all AP exams. (This does not, however, include the PSAT 8/9, the CLEP, or the ACCUPLACER.) Additionally, once approved, College Board accommodations are good until one year after your high school graduation. That means that once you have your accommodations in place, you will be covered for the rest of your testing.
Things to keep in mind while requesting your accommodation and self-advocating
Keep in mind that disability accommodations are not “cheating,” nor are they unfair. Accommodations are reasonable adjustments made to account for differences in students. Test administrators monitor the process and help you figure out what will best suit your needs, so you end up with just what you need—not an unfair boost.
Furthermore, your scores are still real and valid regardless of your accommodation. Once you take the test, the only thing leftover is your score; colleges will not be told that you requested or received accommodations. The accommodations are in place so that when colleges see your score (along with all other applicants’ scores) that score will be an accurate reflection of your ability.
Finally, most (though not all) colleges today require at least SAT or ACT scores, so if you want to continue your education, getting a fair shot at standardized tests is important. You will only be able to show an accurate score if you get the accommodations you need.
To prepare for the test, check out our CollegeVine guide, “Which Section of the ACT/SAT is Most Important?” And, for more test-specific help out, check out “FAQ: An Inside Look at How to Do Well on the New SAT” or “How the ACT is Graded: A Breakdown.” Accommodations are important and doable. Start early, submit your documents on time, and good luck!