RESULTS IN BRIEF
Students with disabilities are entitled by law to the same educational opportunities provided to students without disabilities. To help compensate for their disabilities and provide a level playing field, disabled students often need accommodations on school work and standardized tests, such as extended time, scribes, or large-print formats. Two federal laws, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), ensure that disabled students receive the educational services they need and are not subject to discriminatory practices. Students eligible for accommodations on standardized tests typically qualify for special education under IDEA and have individualized education programs (IEPs) or have Section 504 plans. IEPs and Section 504 plans are tailored to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities and serve as agreements outlining the services schools will provide.
We found that the population of students receiving accommodations depended on the type of test. The mix of students receiving extra time on the State's Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exam in 1999 generally mirrored that of the public school population as a whole. However, wide demographic disparities existed between those 1999 graduating seniors who received extra time on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and those who did not. For example, a disproportionate share of students receiving accommodations on the SAT were white. In addition, California seniors graduating in 1999 from private schools who took the SAT received accommodations at a rate four times higher than that of their public school counterparts.
To keep these disparities in perspective, it is important to note that very few students receive extra time on standardized tests, such as the SAT; ACT, formerly known as the American College Testing Program; and tests administered under the STAR program. Less than 2 percent of the 1999 graduating seniors nationwide who took the SAT received extra time, and in California, the rate was less than 1.2 percent. Likewise, less than 2 percent of the 4.2 million California students in grades 2 through 11 who took the STAR exam during the 1998-99 school year received extra time.
Because so few students receive accommodations on standardized tests, it appears that some students might not be getting the assistance they need. In fact, among 1,012 public schools and 584 private schools with seniors who took the exam, not one 1999 graduating senior received extra time on the SAT. This represents 70 percent and 73 percent, respectively, of all such public and private schools in California. While the cause of this problem may vary from district to district, a lack of staff and parent awareness of Section 504 and its implications for education would seem to be contributing factors. Weaknesses in district processes for identifying and screening students with suspected disabilities may be another causal factor.
On the other hand, some undeserving students may be receiving extra time on standardized tests. We identified questionable cases at six of the seven districts we reviewed. Our review of the files of 330 California students from 18 public schools, most of whom obtained extra time on standardized tests, found that the basis for their accommodations was questionable in 60 instances, or 18.2 percent. The frequency and seriousness of questionable cases varied substantially from district to district. In fact, only one district exhibited significant problems. However, because less than 2 percent of total SAT and STAR test takers receive extra time, the potential magnitude of undeserving students receiving extra time is limited.
Our audit work revealed that six districts did not have adequate records to support the accommodations some students received. However, only one of these districts, San Dieguito Union High School District, displayed significant, widespread problems. For example, its incorrect interpretation of Section 504 allowed potentially ineligible students to obtain extra time on college entrance exams. At this district, Section 504 eligibility decisions are also often inappropriately made by one person, rather than by a qualified team. The threat of litigation also caused one district to provide an unwarranted Section 504 plan that was used by a student to obtain questionable accommodations on a college entrance exam.
Finally, vague instructions on the College Board's eligibility form and weaknesses in its own approval process may have allowed some undeserving students to receive extra time on the SAT. As a result, these students may have had an unfair advantage over other students taking college admissions tests.
To ensure that students with learning disabilities are identified and receive the services they need, we recommend the following:
Los Angeles Unified School District states that it will continue to increase Section 504 awareness by providing teacher and staff development training. San Dieguito Union High School District has contracted with legal counsel to review and, if appropriate, revise its policies and procedures regarding Section 504. The other five districts did not provide formal comments.