“I don’t really need it, but why not?” gets bandied a lot at my office. It’s in reference to what are called “accommodations” in the testing world—students who are given extra time or other special circumstances within which to take their state or nationally administered tests. These accommodations are usually granted in accordance with proof of various learning differences—ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette Syndrome, diabetes, visual processing difficulties, etc. Accommodations are meant to level the playing field for these students, kids for whom the concept of sitting down and concentrating for three and a half hours can fall anywhere between a difficulty and a medical impossibility. And in many cases they do just that, making a test that would otherwise be an unfair assessment (when it professes to measure “college readiness” or “scholastic aptitude,”) an accessible task to every student, regardless of how long their body will allow them to sit docile, how long their blood stream can retain insulin without their losing focus, or how quickly their brains are able to process words on a page.

But there isn’t anyone in the industry who won’t say these privileges get abused.

Accommodations that can be requested by students taking the SAT or ACT include:

  • Extended Time (One and a Half)
  • Extended Time (Double)
  • Multiple Day Testing
  • Individual Room
  • Preferential Seating
  • Large Print
  • Answer-In-Book (in lieu of bubble sheets)
  • Stop Time (can take breaks at any point)
  • Testing on Computer (instead of paper)
  • Use of Scribe (students say the answer, a hired scribe marks it on the answer sheet.)
  • Use of Reader (Reader reads test material, questions, and answers aloud to student.)

Of these accommodations, extended time is the most sought-after. And in recent years, both the ACT and the College Board have been cracking down on what they perceive to be an influx of “unmerited” accommodations. It seems that in their attempt to level the playing field, these tests have somehow, once again, tilted it back in the favor of privilege. An audit of California test takers in 2000 found that, unsurprisingly, a disproportionately high number of those students granted accommodations were white and affluent. This could be for a number of reasons.

One is that the way our society and education system are currently set up—and were likewise set up fourteen years ago—are such that affluent white students are the ones being groomed for college entrance, and as such the ones trying to glean every advantage they can from the system in order to get ahead. Another is that the affluent often have more leisure at which to tend to their children’s education, and more time with which to research testing policies and application procedures. These families would likely have more access to professional psych-evaluative educators and diagnosticians, and the money with which to pay them, giving wealthier students access to valid (and invalid) diagnoses unavailable to most other students.

Another is that in order to apply for special testing accommodations, the application must not only include proof of diagnosis from a credentialed professional, but also proof of action having been taken by your school to accommodate those differences in the past. This is where it gets even stickier. This means that not only have you sought out a professional diagnostician to vouchsafe that you do in fact have a medical difference, but you’ve done it years in advance of whichever test you’re taking—preferably in elementary school—and have presented this diagnosis to your school, which is presumably funded and staffed enough that it can accommodate whatever it is that enables you to perform at a standard level, and is organized (and once again, funded and staffed) enough to aver to the College Board that you do, in fact, need extended time in order for the test to be a fair evaluation of your abilities.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that some schools are equipped to succeed at this procedure, and others aren’t. Some families are, and others aren’t. And some students really and truly need these levelers in order to accurately represent their intellects, while others don’t. And the ones more equipped the get them, either way? The wealthy.

I will take this chance to reiterate that I do believe some students merit these accommodations. A student with dyslexia is simply not going to have the same performance on a small-font, text-based exam as another typically-abled student, unless the test is in some way modified. I believe that this is fair, and it’s one strangely humane aspect of the standardized testing experience. But then I talk with clients at work.

The number of students who have told me that they receive the “Answer-in-Book” accommodation and don’t know why borders on comical. It seems that they applied for everything they thought they could get, and ended up with some treats in the grab bag they aren’t even sure what to do with. “I don’t think it helps me, but they gave it to me so why not?” is generally the explanation. I’ve had parents tell me point blank that they don’t think their child needs extra time, “but why not if we can get it, right?” Just as ADHD has lost some of its stigma in education, the notion of extended time has been reconceived as a performance edge; not something doled out to level the field, but something to be sought after and smuggled into the system like a performance-enhancing drug.

We’re left with a smaller facsimile of the larger problem; standardized testing was adopted in order to ensure that all students were being measured by the same standards and methods. It was intended as a systematically fair leveler. But because of the way that money is distributed among people and among schools in our country, it has resulted in a great unfairness. The same goes with the microcosm that is standardized testing accommodations.

But, because of the shape of the arena, the playing field still manages to tilt towards the already privileged.