In the past year almost half of my private tutoring clients have come to me needing extra time on the ACT. Unfortunately, only a few of them knew their learning differences could qualify them for accommodations on the exam.
All of these hard-working students managed to compensate for their various learning issues and successfully keep their grades up in high school. Unfortunately, none of the guidance counselors or caseworkers at their schools had suggested applying for extra time on the ACT or SAT.
How things work
Just as students can receive accommodations and modifications at school, they can also receive them on standardized tests: ACT, SAT, PSAT, AP exams, etc.
Accommodations vary depending on each student’s needs. Some students require large print exams. Others need extended time and frequent breaks. Some students need the exam to be read aloud.
Some accommodations are for temporary needs. I worked with a young man who broke his hand the week before the PSAT and his accommodation was the ability to mark answers in the exam booklet without having to bubble the answer sheet (something he couldn’t manage with a cast on his writing hand.)
What we want
Testing accommodations “level the playing field” for students with documented needs. They are not intended to give a particular group of students an unfair advantage; they’re meant to provide each student with what he or she needs to compete fairly with his or her peers.
No one would contest a visually impaired student receiving a large print or braille booklet, for example. Many students struggle with less obvious “disabilities.”
Students with dyslexia or processing speed issues will find it impossible to complete an equivalent amount of work in the same time as their “regular” peers. These students may be given additional time to test because the educational and psychological evaluations show a need.
What we don’t want
Many people hear “extended time on the SAT or ACT” and think they’d like to take advantage of this opportunity. Most students find timed exams challenging and wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra time on admissions tests!
What ACT and College Board don’t want is students and parents looking to exploit a perceived loophole in the standardized testing field. In other words, they want to provide appropriate accommodations to students with diagnosed and identified needs, but not provide “bonus” time for families shopping around for an advantage in the admissions process.
How do I know if I qualify?
Of course final word is left to the student support services departments at College Board and ACT. In general, students who receive modifications and accommodations at their high school may qualify for similar accommodations on their standardized testing. Because applications for modified testing need to come from a student’s high school, a visit with your guidance counselor or exceptional education caseworker is a good place to start.
How does the application process work?
Both ACT and College Board require their own applications with supporting documentation. (Remember ACT and College Board are rival companies like Coke and Pepsi, so approval by one does not mean approval by the other.) You may want to apply for both.
You will need to have current documentation of a diagnosed issue. Because all of the forms require the signature of a school official as well as some information about a student’s IEP or school accommodations, the best place to initiate this process is in your high school guidance counseling or exceptional education office.
If you have additional questions or can’t find the specific answers on the College Board or ACT website, call the student support service offices directly. I have found everyone in those departments to be well-informed and helpful.
- Keep in mind that the purpose of testing accommodations is to provide a fair adjustment based on documented needs and part of that means protecting the fairness of students who will not receive extra time for special testing conditions. It is not unusual for applications to be denied. If you feel your application has been unfairly denied, ask for further information or a review.
- One of the most common reasons for an application to be denied is that the applicant no longer receives that accommodation at school. Think about it; if a student doesn’t need extra time in school, why should they get extra time on a standardized test!
- Once approved, accommodations follow a student through his or her entire high school testing time. This means a student who is approved by College Board for extended time on a 10th grade AP exam will have that extended time apply for the PSAT, SAT, and subsequent AP exams in 11th and 12th grade.
- The approval process can take between six and ten weeks– longer if you are asked to provide additional documentation or have to appeal the decision. For this reason, it may be wise to apply the year before your child anticipates taking the standardized exams.
- If your child has gotten by with informal arrangements at school, you may want to think ahead and get some documentation in place prior to 11th grade. Many students in small private schools advocate for themselves and come in before or after school to finish tests they are unable to complete in class. While I applaud students who take initiative to ask for extended time and those teachers who are willing to provide it in the absence of a policy requiring it, when it comes to college placement testing, more formal documentation may be needed.
- Look beyond names and labels. Over the years I’ve encountered many parents who did not want their child to carry a label: ADD, special education, autistic, etc. In many cases these parents have specifically avoided modifications in school to avoid the label. I encourage parents to learn more about the process and focus on the question “what does my child need?” rather than worrying about the label. (I’ll have an article this summer on how student with learning differences are viewed in college admission.)
- Applications must include up to date testing. If your child was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade and your testing is eight years old, the ACT and SAT may ask for you to provide more current documentation of an educational need. Plan ahead for the time and potential expense to get this done.
- Remember not all needs are obvious. One of the students I started working with in December clearly needed extra time. In the past year she finished chemotherapy. This family never thought to consider the lasting impacts of chemotherapy on their daughter’s brain and how it might impact taking a test like the ACT; they were just so grateful her leukemia was in remission and she was back to school full-time. When the student completed educational testing, doctors found her processing speed and working memory had been impaired. Now the daughter has extended time on the ACT and a better understanding of why she has to read things two or three times to remember anything.
Don’t wait for your school guidance counselor to initial this process for you. As I have found with my clients this year, you need to be informed and advocate for your child if you suspect testing accommodations are appropriate.
For more information, you can see the testing accommodations pages for