Does Loophole Give Rich Kids More Time on SAT?

March 30, 2006, 5:10 PM

March 30, 2006 — -- When 19-year-old "Jane," who asked that her real name not be used, was in prep school, she said several of her classmates obtained notes from psychologists diagnosing them with learning disabilities, even though they didn't have any learning problems.

They faked learning disabilities to get extra time to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, in the hopes of getting a higher score, she said.

"I had a friend who is a good math student but is no math brain, and she got extended time and got a perfect score on her math SAT," Jane said.

That friend now attends an Ivy League school.

Some call this scheme the rich-kids loophole. With intense competition to get into Ivy League and other elite colleges, students say they need nearly perfect SAT scores, as well as great grades and impressive extra-curricular activities. A rising chorus of critics say high school students from wealthy ZIP codes and elite schools obtain questionable diagnoses of learning disabilities to secure extra time to take the SATs and beef up their scores.

Jane believes that to get into Harvard or Princeton, she'd need to score at least a 1500. The highest SAT score is 1600.

"I got below 1400 and I knew I didn't have a shot getting into an Ivy despite my grades and extra-curriculars," she said.

Approximately 300,000 students will take the three-hour-and-forty-five-minute SAT this Saturday; about 30,000 taking the test this year will be given special accommodations, including extra time.

For decades, the College Board, which administers the SAT, has allowed up to twice as much time to accommodate students who have legitimate learning disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

But with college admissions more competitive than ever, guidance counselors and other educators say privileged kids have gamed the system.

At the elite Wayland High school outside Boston, the number of students receiving special accommodations is more than 12 percent, more than six times the estimated national average of high school students with learning disabilities.

Wayland guidance counselor Norma Greenberg said that it's not that difficult for wealthy, well-connected students to get the diagnoses they want.

"There are a lot of hired guns out there, there are a lot of psychologists who you can pay a lot of money to and get a murky diagnosis of subtle learning issues," Greenberg said. "'Subtle' is a word that is really a red flag. 'Executive functioning' is another red flag, something that is kind of a new thing."

Other high school guidance counselors told ABC News that "diagnosis shopping" has given rise to a cottage industry of doctors and medical professionals, all willing to give students the documentation they need to get the extra test time they want.

The natural proportion of learning disabilities should be somewhere around 2 percent, the College Board said, but at some elite schools, up to 46 percent of students receive special accommodations to take the tests, including extra time.

Harvard graduate student and researcher Sam Abrams conducted a study on students in Washington, D.C, where the number of students receiving accommodations is more than three times the national average.

"We see outright overperformance ... scores that, on average, in the disability population, would qualify you without question to the elite universities," Abrams said. "This strikes me as very compelling evidence that people are taking advantage of the system in Washington, D.C."

Abrams believes the abuse has become more frequent since fall 2003, when the College Board stopped "flagging" the scores of students who took the SAT with extra time. Since the "flag" was dropped, colleges have no way of knowing that the test was taken under nonstandard conditions. Abrams and his co-author, Miriam Freedman, believe this has made it more appealing for students who don't need the extra time to seek it out.

The College Board notes that there has not been an increase in the number of students receiving special accommodations. It acknowledges that scores for those students have increased but said that's evidence the students had learning disabilities. The College Board said students without learning disabilities did not show any marked improvement in scores when given extra time.

In Chicago's wealthy northern suburbs, SAT tutor Jay Brody sees the same "diagnosis shopping" phenomenon as Greenberg. "Parents have asked me on numerous occasions if I know doctors who specialize in this," Brody said. "I know if you get on the Internet there are doctors who advertise that they perform this service, and there's really no incentive for doctors not to do it, and so I think it's pretty easy for anyone to find."

Steven Mouton, a licensed clinical psychologist in Pasedena, Calif., has a Web site that advertises a number of services, including assessment of learning disabilities.

Mouton charges more than $1,500 for a diagnosis and said he diagnosed a learning disability about 90 percent of the time. Business is up, he said, and most of his clients are from wealthy neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Though not all -- Mouton advertises a special "fly-in" service to the local airport for those who want to see him and secure his expertise.

"What I recommend is to take the SAT under the regular conditions and then give yourself an additional 50 percent more time on the practice test," Mouton said. "And if you see a significant difference, then there is a high probability that you would benefit from the additional time."

Mouton said it's impossible to game the system. "All of those people that are getting the accommodations, those that are getting independent tests to have these accommodations supported, are doing so and in a justified way," Mouton said.

But in 2000, the California State Auditor Board reported that "the basis for accommodations [in the state] was questionable in 18.2 percent of cases."

Jay Brody, the tutor, said that extra time is as good as adding a couple hundred points to a student's score. In today's competitive admissions atmosphere, that point jump can mean the difference between getting admitted or rejected from a top-tier school or receiving enough financial aid to actually attend one.

"Accommodations are supposed to level the playing field," said education lawyer Miriam Freedman. "They are not supposed to change the game. This one changes the game at the high range."

The College Board, however, denies this is a problem at all.

"The board has put into place a rigorous system so that students who shouldn't be getting special accommodations don't," said Jim Montoya, a vice president at the College Board.

But out in the trenches, many disagree with the College Board. Mark Magazu went to a modest high school in rural New Jersey. He had to take a year off between high school and college to beef up his SAT scores.

Years later, as an SAT tutor, he saw students exploiting the rich-kids loophole," and he thought it was unfair.

"I mean, I was right on the cusp for everywhere I applied; I could have used the extra 50 or 200 points," Maguza said. "It makes me more mad to know that there are some kids that don't get accepted, that went through what I did. I couldn't go to school for a year."

In addition to casting doubt on students who have legitimate special needs, what kind of lesson does this "loophole" teach honest students?

When ABC News asked Jane, who is now a freshman at Georgetown University, whether in retrospect she'd wished she had gotten a diagnosis that would have secured extra time for her to take the SAT, she immediately said yes.

But after a second of thought, she changed her mind. "No," she said. "Because I'm happy here and I got in."