For Dyslexic Test-Takers, the New SAT Is Even Worse

Advance reviews of the revised SAT are in — and things don’t look good for some students.

The New York Times recently published an article that offered an early glimpse of the upcoming changes. With Common Core-inspired, evidence-based reading and writing sections and the elimination of penalties for guessing, educators and test prep consultants have a wide range of opinions about the type of student who will most benefit from the redesign (due out in March 2016).

Where consensus is building, though, is around the question of which type of student will be the clear loser — teens who struggle with reading speed. Experts estimate that students with dyslexia comprise up to 17 percent of the population (undiagnosed and diagnosed combined), and for these kids, the changes to the test are especially significant. Reportedly, one of the most pronounced differences between the new and old SAT is a dramatic increase in the amount of reading required (in both verbal and math sections). One reviewer flatly warned, “If you don’t read well and happily, this test isn’t going to be your friend.”

Rewarding Speed Over Comprehension

It is reasonable to assume that the test designers decided that measuring reading comprehension in every area should be a central objective of the revised exam. Few would argue the value of this goal. In the context of the SAT’s rule-rich and time-restrictive setting, though, reading speed rather than reading comprehension is what will be measured — and rewarded.

Dyslexics do not inherently struggle to make meaning out of written content. In fact, many excel in comprehension. But their reading rate is notably slower than that of their non-dyslexic peers — and it is impossible to make meaning out of passages or questions that you do not even have time to reach. With the increase in the quantity of reading required and the greater emphasis on it in the math as well as verbal sections, the risk, of course, is that students with dyslexia and other reading-related learning disabilities will fare poorly across the board, and may be adversely affected in the college admissions process.

Lacking Consistency

This problem is not new. As an important gatekeeping tool for selective colleges and universities, standardized tests have historically blocked access to institutions of higher education for many intellectually talented and academically capable dyslexic students who happen to be poor test-takers. Reading volume on standardized tests has always been a challenge for slow readers, but the increased emphasis on reading stamina and speed on the revised SAT threatens to raise that hurdle further.

Ultimately, if the reading involved on the new SAT mimicked the way that students read for school, it would not be as significant an obstacle. But standardized test environments in no way resemble school environments. Indeed, the rules and constraints constructed to “standardize” exams prevent that. Although many children with reading challenges are granted accommodations in school, such as additional time to read assignments or assistive technology to access written content, very few students are allowed the same supports on the SAT that they are able to leverage in their school life.

Indeed, even test-takers who are granted accommodations on this exam rarely receive the full range they have at school. The College Board may, for example, permit a student with dyslexia some of the extra time requested on her application, but because of its own complicated rules or exceptions, offer less than the amount she is entitled to through her Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan.

Avoiding Transparency

Official statistics on the percentage of students who ought to receive testing accommodations but do not are impossible to confirm, since the very company that administers the exam and approves such requests does not release this information. School administrators, however, acknowledge that there is a significant gap between the percentage of learners who are entitled to accommodations and those who are ultimately awarded them by the College Board. There is no way to predict why a request for accommodation will be rejected; the explanatory response letters that students receive from the company are maddeningly opaque.

Of course, some teens with dyslexia or other learning differences do receive testing accommodations, and if we could trust that all students who would benefit would have access to them, the harm would be greatly diminished. But even seasoned educators caution that securing sufficient accommodations from the College Board is akin to winning the lottery. Additionally, the request application itself requires a level of savvy and strategy that greatly challenges a significant — and already vulnerable — group of economically disadvantaged test-takers, many of whom attend high schools that lack the screening resources and guidance support necessary to navigate the College Board’s demands. In many underserved public schools, there is inadequate identification of learning disabilities, and independent evaluations are typically prohibitively expensive for disadvantaged families. Such inequity leaves low-income teens without access to the accommodations that their more economically-advantaged peers receive, a situation that the College Board’s policies compound.

Looking Ahead

It is not inconsequential that on the day The New York Times published its piece about the new SAT, the newspaper also published an article about the recent move by 47 additional colleges and universities to adopt test-optional admissions policies, raising the overall number of these schools above 850. This trend may turn out to offer a critical alternative for those students who will be hit hardest by the test redesign.

Nonetheless, the SAT’s overhaul is likely to exacerbate existing educational inequities for students with learning disabilities, especially those who are additionally constrained by income or a lack of access to test prep and guidance resources — and for this, educators, high school counselors, parents, and college admissions officers should be calling on the College Board for greater transparency and fairness in serving all students, not just those who happen to be able to read quickly.

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