Nearly one in five GDS students have special accommodations on tests, including extra time or sitting in separate rooms, a rate substantially higher than public schools in Washington, where fewer than two percent of students receive testing accommodations.
In the wake of the recent college admissions scandal, testing accommodations have come under scrutiny amid allegations that schools in affluent areas are more likely to take advantage of such accommodations and that wealthy families have turned to paying for expensive assessments to gain an advantage for their children in school and on standardized tests.
The federal section 504 program, created under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is designed to protect students with disabilities, and it requires public schools to offer services to students who have a condition that impacts their academic performance, such as anxiety or ADHD. Plans under the 504 program can even the playing field for students. They give a chance to handle the stress of schoolwork at their own pace, usually allowing extended time on assessments or testing in a separate room.
Similar to the 504 program, an Individualized Education Program, created under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, is designed for students with a disability that significantly impacts educational performance, including students who are eligible for special education and struggle to learn in a traditional classroom setting.
Nationally, the number of students given the 504 designation more than tripled from 2000 to 2016, according to federal statistics. Similarly, requests to the College Board for such special accommodations jumped 200 percent from the 2010-11 year to the 2017-18 year, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. The College Board approves 94 percent of the requests.
But the plans are not doled out equitably across the nation. The Augur Bit researched 11 DMV area high schools and found that on average 1.36 percent of students have 504 plans at public schools in low-income areas, where 75 percent or more of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches, according to data from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
At GDS, a private school with an average high school tuition of over $40,000 per year, 19 percent of high school students have special accommodations on tests, according to Kim Palombo, the Department Chair of Learning Services at GDS.
Palombo explained that the GDS “percentage of students with specialized accommodations is identical to the national average.” Palombo pointed to a study by the National Council of Learning Disabilities finding that “one in five children aged 3 through 17 have a specific learning disability or ADHD.” Nationwide studies of children of all ages, however, may have limited relevance as a basis for comparison to a student population at a high school like GDS, which imposes academic requirements for admission and offers no special education program.
At Woodrow Wilson High School, a public school only a half mile away from GDS, 2.2 percent of students have a 504 plan, while 26.6 percent of their students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches.
Outside of DC, at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School (BCC) and McLean High School, the story is different. At BCC, 5.7 percent of students have 504 plans, and only 12 percent qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches. At McLean, 6.5 percent of students have 504 plans, and only 8.4 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches.
The disparity among schools locally reflects a national trend. A recent study by The New York Times “found a glaring wealth gap in 504 designations.” At high schools in the richest school districts—the top 1 percent as measured by census income data—5.8 percent of students had a 504 plan, more than double the national average of 2.7 percent, according to the New York Times. Some wealthy districts had 504 rates of up to 18 percent.
There were also racial disparities among students with 504 plans. According to data from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, white students represent 13 percent of students enrolled in D.C. public schools. However, they represent 27.6 percent of students with 504 plans.
Recently, the junior and sophomore classes at GDS took the PSAT, a standardized test administered by the College Board that can allow students to receive scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Out of the 255 students taking the test, 21.1 percent received special accommodations, including extended time or testing in a separate room.
For education experts, the sharp disparity in accommodations raises the question of whether families in moneyed communities are taking advantage of the system, or whether they simply have the means to address a problem that less affluent families cannot, according to the New York Times story.
Public high schools decide which students get a special designation like a 504 plan that puts them in line for more time. The schools may confer the designation in response to a request from a teacher or from a parent. Typically, a medical professional must assess a student and decide if they have a need for special accommodations.
In explaining the relatively high rate of students with special accommodations at GDS, Palombo stated: “In comparison to schools that receive public funding, as a learning specialist at GDS, I’m entrusted to make decisions to provide accommodations for students based solely on a student’s demonstrated need at our school without the consideration of the ‘cost of the disability’ for the school or whether the student has ‘sufficiently failed’ in advance of providing accommodations.”
In affluent communities, parents are more likely to know that the option to have their children receive testing accommodations exists and can pay for an outside evaluation if the school will not. In the DC area, neuropsychological evaluations can exceed $5,000 and are usually not covered by insurance.
Private high schools do not use the 504 or Individualized Education Program designations, so there is no federal data to indicate how many of their students are eligible for extra time. Although schools like GDS do not use 504 designations, Palombo said in an interview that GDS follows a similar protocol as the 504 program in verifying that a student is in need of testing accommodations. This protocol includes having the student demonstrate a need, take a psychological evaluation and confirm with the teacher that the student needs the specific testing accommodation.
The Augur Bit reached out to five other DMV area private schools. Only one school, Sidwell, responded but declined to provide information about how many of its students had testing accommodations. The other four schools, Maret, Bullis, Potomac and St. Albans, did not respond.
Will Olsen ’21