What are SAT/ACT Accommodations and Why You Won’t Qualify For Them

   With the school year in full swing, and both the final big SAT and ACT testings approaching in December and the major spring testings looming on the horizon, the stress levels of high school students and their parents are once again on the rise.  Not only are the SAT and the ACT stressful experiences for both students and parents, the testing processes are not nearly as transparent as families and educators would like, and this leads to confusion amongst parents and students. A common question parents and students ask me is about the accommodations offered by the SAT and the ACT, and whether they should apply for them when signing up to take the next SAT or ACT.  Most students and parents are not even sure what the accommodations are or whether they qualify for them.

            Accommodations mean that the College Board or ACT, Inc., administer their tests, the SAT or the ACT respectively, with slight adjustments to meet the learning needs of individual students.  The most common accommodation is extended time.  A student who has earned the extended time accommodation may get one and a half times as many minutes to complete any given section. For example, the Math section on the ACT normally lasts 60 minutes, however, a student with time-and-a-half extended time gets 90 minutes to complete that section.

            Additionally, when a student gets extended time, they get it for the entire test, not just one section.  So that means that while the SAT with essay normally takes three hours and 50 minutes, plus breaks, for a student with the time-and-a-half extended time accommodation it now takes five hours and 45 minutes to complete the SAT. Students with time accommodations cannot finish the test early.  As with all things in life, there are trade-offs with extended time.

            Students with accommodations are sequestered into their own testing rooms at SAT and ACT test sites so that students with different timing mechanisms don’t disturb each other.  This extends to other accommodations as well.  Students with the double-time extended time accommodation, for example, take the SAT or ACT on separate test dates, usually the Monday and Tuesday following the Saturday dates available to students without accommodations.

            There are other accommodations available to students beyond just extended time.  Students who have difficulty writing by hand can earn the accommodation to write the SAT or ACT essay on a computer.  Students with severe physical limitations can get verbal assistance and other adjustments to the testing experience.  I once worked with a student who had cerebral palsy.  Despite his advanced intellect (he was a multiple AP student), this child was physically unable to write by hand and had vision trouble to the point that he was legally blind.  He earned accommodations that included a private testing space, a scribe to read him the test questions and write his answers, access to a computer so that the scribe could type his dictated essay, and double-time.

            The conditions that led to this particular student’s accommodations were well documented, as he had his condition from birth.  But even with less severe accommodations, there has to be a long-standing history of need.  The College Board and ACT, Inc., do not award accommodations based solely on a student asking for them.  The College Board and ACT, Inc., both have a policy of matching accommodations that students already receive at their schools.

            Most students receive accommodations through their schools after a long and arduous process that results in either a federal Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a state-mandated plan, such as a 504 Plan in Massachusetts.  Parents who have gone through the process of getting an IEP for their children can tell you how challenging that process can be.  It can involve years of assessments, obtaining documentation, doctor appointments, teacher meetings, and wrangling with school administrators.  Only students who have gone through this process and earned accommodations through their schools have a chance of earning similar accommodations from the College Board or ACT, Inc.

            This means that the majority of parents and students who ask me about accommodations during junior or even senior year have no chance to receive them on the upcoming SAT or ACT.  Even if a parent or student starts the process with their school at the beginning of the junior year, it is not likely that they would finish the IEP process before college applications were due in the middle of senior year.

            The short answer to the question of can my student get accommodations is no, unless you already get them from school.  Rather than focus on getting extended time for the SAT or ACT, most students would be better served by building up test-taking skills and addressing their pacing on these tests.  And for students who do qualify for accommodations, it is better to reach out to the College Board or ACT, Inc., as early as possible, even months before the first time you plan to take any of these tests.