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College Cheating Scandal Reveals Alleged Disability Testing Accommodation Scam

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In what is being called the “largest college cheating scam” ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, 50 people allegedly paid large sums of money to get their children accepted into universities across the country. Among the outlined accusations, some parents allegedly exploited disability accommodations so students could get better standardized test scores for college admission.

U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announced the accusations at a news conference, Good Morning America reported. Per Lelling, all of the cheating can allegedly be traced back to William Singer, who owns Key Worldwide Foundation and Edge College & Career Network. Between 2011 and 2018 he is accused of collecting $25 million in bribes to get students into college with the help of a network of others.

Among those indicted, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, various alleged cheating activities were uncovered. These included bribing coaches to accept non-athletic students on sports teams to secure college admission and paying for adults to take standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT in place of students.  

In addition, some parents are accused of taking advantage of the ability to request accommodations for students with disabilities, including Huffman and her husband William Macy, who is not named in the suit. Parents were allegedly told they should get medical documentation to claim a learning disability and request extra time for their child to take the exam. According to the filed charges, they were then told their children should take the test at centers in Houston and West Hollywood, California, where exam proctors allegedly corrected the students’ answers.

This revelation outraged disability advocates online.

The Mighty’s contributing disability editor, Karin Willison, explained how complex getting testing accommodations can be and why these standardized tests might not be the most effective measure for college readiness in the first place. She said:

When I took the SAT many years ago, getting accommodations was a complex process. I have cerebral palsy and needed my test in a different format as well as extra time to complete it. My score was flagged to colleges as a “non-standard administration,” which violated my right not to disclose my disability and seemed to suggest that my score was less legitimate than others. The SAT stopped flagging scores a number of years ago, but other testing companies are currently facing lawsuits for continuing the practice. Although I did well on my standardized tests, I don’t believe anything on the test demonstrated my academic skills or college readiness, and certainly not in a way that wasn’t already shown in my grades, personal essay and extracurricular activities. I was tested on how well I could take the test and nothing more.

While abuse of disability accommodations by students without disabilities isn’t new, this alleged cheating scandal highlights how difficult it is for students with actual disabilities to get the accommodations they need. A 2016 inquiry, for example, looked into high numbers of disabled students receiving scores that were not “college-reportable” because of “unapproved” accommodations, creating what advocates call a “separate and unequal” system.

Because of how difficult it is for students with disabilities to get the accommodations they need, Willison highlighted that moving forward, it’s important not to punish students with disabilities who need accommodations for standardized testing and a fair shot at college.

“When people fraudulently obtain disability accommodations, it makes it harder for those with legitimate needs like me to get the accommodations we need,” Willison said, adding:

Those who are responsible need to be prosecuted, but we must be careful not to turn abusive behavior by the rich and powerful into an excuse to persecute everyday kids with disabilities and their families who need accommodations for standardized testing.

Header image via Felicity Huffman’s Facebook page and screen shot from ABC News.

Originally published: March 13, 2019
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