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Accommodations for College Entrance Exams: What Parents Need to Know

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If you’re the parent of a high-schooler, you know the pressure surrounding your kid’s performance on the “big kahuna tests.” You know, the SAT’s, PSAT’s, ACT’s, AP exams, and so on. With graduation approaching, those scores hold a lot of power in proving your child has what it takes to succeed in college. If your child has a disability that affects their learning, the stress of these impending exams can feel especially overwhelming. You know your child’s potential and you don’t want their challenges holding them back from success.

How can my child have a fair chance?

Fortunately, test administrators are willing to make a variety of accommodations to level the playing field for students with disabilities. Knowing that accommodations exist and understanding how to pursue them are two different things, so here are some tips for a smooth experience in getting your child the support they need:

1. Learn what’s eligible

The accommodations provided will vary based on your child’s diagnosis and the test administrator. The SAT’s, PSAT’s, and AP exams are administered by The College Board. The ACT is administered independently by the American College Testing Program. The eligibility policies of the ACT and The College Board are similar, having only slight differences in documentation requirements and application processes. In most cases, eligibility for accommodations will be based on the following factors.

Having a documented disability – you’ll need current documentation from a psychoeducational specialist or physician that:

  • Clearly states the diagnosis
  • Supports the diagnosis by stating the assessment measures and results
  • Explains the degree to which it affects your child’s ability to perform tasks (functional limitation)
  • Details and justifies the specific accommodations needed
  • Includes your child’s educational, developmental, and medical history
  • Includes the accommodations page of your child’s IEP or Section 504 Plan, if they have one (if they don’t, you’ll need to explain why they haven’t had accommodations in school and justify why they’ll need them now)
  • Establishes the professional credentials of the specialist

Having a disability that directly impacts test-tasking - For example, requests are commonly made for students with disabilities related to reading, writing, or sitting still for an extended period.

Accommodation is given in school – Typically, whatever accommodations are given during classroom tests will be approved by The College Board or ACT, but know that having an IEP or 504 does not automatically guarantee this.

2. Understand what isn’t

If your child’s disability is not directly related to the tasks required of the exams, they will likely be denied eligibility. Some disabilities that are not commonly accepted are impairments in walking or other physical movement unrelated to writing, hearing impairments (college exams are mostly written), or certain psychiatric conditions that do not clearly impact their test taking ability, such as a wind phobia.  

3. Discover what’s offered

Test administrators consider all reasonable requests, as long as the child has supporting documentation. Some common accommodations include:

  • Extended time – Students whose disabilities cause them to complete tasks slower than other students may be eligible for extended time to complete exams. They will need documentation specifically stating how much time they need, and which subject section(s) of the test they will need extended time on.  
  • Extended or extra breaks – Longer or additional breaks may be granted to students who need to check their blood sugar, take medications, use the restroom frequently, or who have ADHD.
  • Computer use – Students with language-based learning disorders, or impaired writing abilities may be eligible to use a school computer to fill out essay and short-answer portions. This accommodation is not available for children whose disability only impacts their spelling, as the “spell-check” function is disabled from the school’s computers during exams.
  • Use of a four-function calculator – Students with documented disorders in performing math calculations may be eligible to use approved calculators that are limited to performing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
  • Reading and seeing accommodations – MP3 audio tests, magnifiers, large-print test books, or Braille graphs and test books may be offered to students with severe reading disabilities or vision impairments.

4. Explore your child needs

Parents often know what works well for their child, but may be unaware of additional accommodations that are available. For example, parents may request that their child with ADHD be given extended time, but they may not know that some students with ADHD perform better when testing among a small group. Consulting with a specialist in Educational Psychology can help you learn the most effective accommodations available for your child and guide you through the approval process. They can also provide the necessary documentation required to submit your accommodations requests.

5. Start early

Requests to The College Board and ACT can take several weeks to be processed, and you aren’t guaranteed accommodations if your requests come in late. You can access The College Board’s request deadlines by clicking here and the ACT’s special testing calendar by clicking here. Your best bet is to start early and work with your school in submitting your requests.

6. Communicate with school officials

Whenever possible, The College Board and ACT recommend working with officials at your school to submit requests. Many schools have specially authorized educators who have access to the online request systems for both The College Board and the ACT. The College Board refers to these officials as SSD Coordinators, and ACT refers to them as TC’s (Test Coordinators) or TAC’s  (Test Accommodations Coordinators). If you do not have access or support from one of these officials, you are able to apply for accommodations yourself.

7. Get to know the request process

TAC’s and SSD Coordinators have access to online requests and customer support, streamlining the process and ensuring that you include all necessary documentation. For the SAT, your SSD Coordinator can assist from start to finish with registering your child. For the ACT, you will need to register your child online first, making sure to select the “Special Accommodations” option. You will then select your requested accommodation type and submit the initial registration. Afterward you’ll receive a confirmation email with instructions to forward it to your school’s TAC, and the TAC will complete your formal submission to the ACT.

What if we don’t have an SSD Coordinator or TAC?

Whether your child is home-schooled or your school does not have authorized officials to assist you, both The College Board and ACT have registration options that can be completed by parents. You can contact The College Board’s SSD department directly to get a hard-copy application, but allow yourself additional time since The College Board specially reviews all applications not submitted by SSD Coordinators. You can register for the ACT online, but will need to include a statement from your student’s teacher, parent, co-op, or consortium detailing:

  • Their current accommodations
  • Under what conditions accommodations are provided
  • How long they’ve been receiving accommodations
  • Their official diagnosis documentation

8. Learn what to expect after your request

After your child’s accommodation request is approved, it is up to your TAC/SSD Coordinator to work with your family to ensure that appropriate accommodations are in place for each exam. If your child’s request is denied, it is usually for one of three reasons:

  • Additional information is required
  • The documentation did not fulfill their requirements to support the diagnosis/accommodations
  • The request has been partially approved, meaning some but not all of the accommodations are being allowed

If you are a parent whose child has been approved and you don’t know what to do next, or if your request has been denied and you feel that was an inappropriate decision, a specialist in Educational Advocacy can guide you through the next steps.

9. Consult a Specialist

The world of admissions exams can be overwhelming for anyone, especially for parents of children with disabilities that impair learning. There are several ways to ensure a positive test-taking experience for your child, and there’s no reason you need to go through this alone.

Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child psychology and educational psychology. Dr. Shinn specializes in helping parents understand the special education processes conducted by schools and empowering them to become informed advocates for their children. Whether you’re wondering if your child is eligible for support or you’re concerned that your school isn’t meeting the needs of your child, Dr. Shinn can help.

More about Variations Psychology

Variations Psychology is a group practice composed of specialists in a variety of psychology domains including Clinical Psychology, School and Educational Psychology, Child Development, Psychological Testing, Educational Testing, and Training.

Our specialists provide therapy to children, adolescents, adults, couples and families.  We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions (e.g. ADHD, Autism, Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders).

Variations Psychology is located in Newport Beach, CA and provides counseling to residents throughout Orange County and its surrounding areas including Newport Beach, Newport Coast, Irvine, Shady Canyon, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Coto de Caza, Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa, Yorba Linda, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Mission Viejo, Pelican Hill, Crystal Cove, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, Lake Forest, Huntington Beach, Sunset Beach, Seal Beach, and more.