no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

Ultimately, I found it in a quote from one of the indicted fathers, George Caplan. In a wire-tapped phone call, Caplan explained:

“What happened is, all the wealthy families… figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time.”

Caplan is referring to provisions, put in place through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that protect students with diagnosed learning disabilities. Under that statute, a parent (or a teacher, or even the student herself) can request that a student be evaluated for learning disabilities. If the student is found to have a learning disability, then that student is entitled to reasonable accommodations—including things like extra time on tests or a separate space to take exams.

As Caplan suggests, however, wealthy families are using the law to break the law. They’re having their kids fraudulently diagnosed with learning disabilities—including anxiety and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)—to get extra time on tests. And hopefully to get higher scores.

According to Caplan, that kind of extra-time fraud is happening “everywhere around the country.”

And it might be happening in every affluent, white community. In wealthy neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York City, upwards of 50% of students are getting accommodations on tests. Research also shows that ADHD diagnoses are far more common among affluent white students than among lower-income students and students of color. And diagnosis rates for anxiety are even more skewed by race and class.

But that kind of extra-time fraud isn’t happening everywhere.

Rather, there are countless students—and especially low-income students and students of color—who would never think to get tested for accommodations, let alone cheat to get them.

That includes one of my own college students—a first-generation college student and student of color. This story is shared with her permission, but I offered not to use her real name. So I’ll call her Brianna, instead.

Back in February, before the first exam in my Introduction to Sociology class, I got an email from Brianna. Her grandmother was in the hospital, and she wasn’t sure whether she should go to be with her family or stay to take the exam. I told her to go—she could take the exam when she got back. And so, a few days later, Brianna took the exam, by herself, in a quiet conference room in my department. As she handed me her test, Brianna thanked me for being so understanding. She paused, chuckled softly, and noted that this was “best test experience” of her life. Continuing, she explained that she gets “really anxious” during tests, and that being crammed into a classroom with hundreds of other stressed-out students makes it worse.

I told Brianna she isn’t alone – that it’s incredibly common for students to feel anxious about tests. I told her that some students with anxiety qualify for test-related accommodations, including extra time and a separate, quiet space to take tests. I also offered to help Brianna contact our disability services office to ask about being evaluated for accommodations.

Now, I’m a sociologist – not a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist. And I can’t say with certainty that Brianna has the kind of anxiety that would legally qualify her for accommodations under IDEA. But George Caplan blatantly encouraged his daughter to fake a disability—told her “to be stupid” during the evaluation. And Caplan’s daughter got extra time. Meanwhile, Brianna has made it all the way to her senior year of college without anyone encouraging her to get tested or even telling her that test anxiety is a thing.

Considering these two cases, side by side, it seems painfully obvious that our system of testing and accommodations is broken and unfair. Unfair to students like Brianna and unfair to students who have been legitimately diagnosed with learning disabilities and who have a real need for accommodations in school.

Now, some might say that the solution is to test all students for learning disabilities with a single, standard test. But I’d argue that universal testing won’t guarantee that marginalized students get the accommodations they need. As I’ve found in my research, and as other scholars have found in theirs, low-income students and students of color are often reluctant to ask for help. So even if those students are tested, and even if those tests reveal a need for accommodations, marginalized students might not ask for extra time from their professors or when they take the SATs.

And it’s understandable why marginalized students might be reluctant to ask. Our society is and has long been critical of people who ask for handouts, especially if those people aren’t seen as “deserving” of support. Think of the stories of government-scamming “welfare queens,” which, despite being thoroughly debunked, continue to shape how our society perceives low-income women of color. Or the assumption that if a person of color is attending an elite school or has an elite job, they must have gotten there because of affirmative action, and not by any merits of their own.

Wealthy white students – like George Caplan’s daughter – don’t have to worry about those stereotypes. They’ve been told their whole lives that they’re special. That they deserve every possible advantage.

And so those wealthy white students—and their parents—feel entitled to extra time. And they feel confident gaming the system to get that extra time, because they see it happening “everywhere.” But what those wealthy white families don’t realize is that their “everywhere” is not everywhere. And their extra-time fraud is not a victimless crime.

So how do we fix the broken system of testing and accommodations? In the long term, I’d argue that we need to seriously rethink our reliance on testing—as a measure of “good” students, “good” teachers, and “good” schools. If tests count less, fewer students will feel anxious about taking them, and fewer students (and parents) will have an incentive to cheat.

Unfortunately, changing our deeply entrenched culture of testing will take time.

In the short term, then, I’d argue that we need educators to embrace the idea of universal design. That means creating courses and content and assessments that are flexible enough to account for differences in students’ learning needs. That flexibility eliminates the need for individual accommodations—including things like a separate space or extra time.

And that’s why, in the wake of my conversation with Brianna and the fallout from Operation Varsity Blues, I’m changing how I do exams. In the past, my students have had two options: sit elbow-to-elbow with 250 classmates, writing frantically for 75 minutes straight, or get a note and take the exam in the disability services office with lots of space and extra time. This semester, all my students—documented disability or not—will get 24 hours and a take-home exam. Because I’d rather give all my students ample time and ample space than make one student struggle without the accommodations she deserves.

5 thoughts on “no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams”

  1. I agree with the idea of universal design although I think you can implement it in various ways.

    I used our learning software to set up an on-line exam with a time limit at least twice as long as it should take to do the exam [assessed by having grad students who had not seen the questions in advance take the exam to see how long it took them and then more than doubling that time], then gave students a big window (nearly a week) within which to take the exam. I did have a long list of students who had been granted extra time (wasn’t sure what that was about but maybe now I know?). Test statistics suggested that nobody was running out of time to finish the exam and the people allotted extra time had no particular advantage. But these tests were not high stakes, with most of the grade coming from projects, so perhaps not a fair test. And the tests were largely closed-ended, not essay exams.

    I figured out long ago that you want to make sure that most people can finish your exam in well under the allotted time. Otherwise it isn’t really fair. Speed in working through the questions is measuring a different variable than knowledge of the material. Some people type really slowly, as slow as 20 wpm; others (like me) type at over 120 wpm. That is, what, a factor of 6 in how quickly you can just lay the words on the page if you know what you are talking about.

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  2. I have done similar things for a few years under the principles of universal design and that exams and evaluations should only be measuring what is learned. One thing that you might wan to consider is to have your exams be over two days as this helps eliminate the ‘conflicting’ schedule issue where some students cannot have more than one exam due on one day.

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  3. The points made above are good but there are other issues I’ve never seen addressed seriously anywhere. The education system seems far more accommodating of “disabilities” than, e.g., employers. Getting work done fast is actually highly valued by employers. I don’t know a lot about how ADA is used in workplaces, but it would generally be considered preposterous not to reward people who complete more high quality work. Maybe the status quo is better than schools that don’t give any kids extended time, but it seems a bit strange given that needing extra time will be a real disadvantage once they are out of school.

    The other point is that mental health and learning disabilities don’t typically exist as binary (you have it or you don’t) sorta things. Rather, all people have a bunch of different traits, skills, preferences, challenges, tendencies, etc. And these things tend to be distributed continuously. Identification of learning disabilities, and the provision of accommodations, therefore necessarily involves creating a somewhat arbitrary cutpoint where similar people/symptoms are lucky/unlucky to be above/below the cutpoint. This is clearly unfair to some people, but I don’t see an obviously superior approach.

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    1. So you start out by admitting that you don’t know a lot about accommodations in workplaces, and then you jump to a huge number of unsupported conclusions about extra time on exams being the same as not being able to complete work quickly on the job. If you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, why are you talking?

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