No More “Scarlet Asterisk”

University Testing

The College Entrance Examination Board, sponsor of the SAT, and ACT Inc. have agreed to end their long-standing practice of “flagging” exam results from students who took the test with accommodations allowed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. On SAT reports, for example, an asterisk indicating a “non standard administration” has been printed next to such scores.


Many disability activists felt the symbol and accompanying language stigmatized their applications and led to different treatment by some admissions officers. The most common accommodation allows test-takers additional time to complete the exam.


The new ACT and SAT policies, which begin in the fall of 2003, in effect extend the terms of a 2001 legal settlement in which the Educational Testing Service agreed to drop similar notations on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit law center based in Oakland, California, brought that case.


Critics claim the new policies will unleash a “floodgate” of requests for accommodations, particularly by students from wealthy families who can afford the private educational assessments often needed to qualify. Indeed, a California study did discover the highest rates of non-standard administrations were in upper-income communities. Nationwide, however, barely 2% of all SAT exams were taken with any form of accommodation. And strict special testing requirements — including documentation that similar accommodations had been provided for school exams — will not change.


DRA and its clients argued that potential misuse by a few is no justification for blocking justice for those whose college readiness is not accurately measured in a standard test administration. Ultimately, test-makers agreed that flagging discourages many students from applying for necessary accommodations and can create a barrier to educational opportunity.


Taking that argument to its logical conclusion, Harvard University cognitive psychology Professor Howard Gardner questioned the rationale for limiting time on any admissions test. In a New York Times opinion column, Dr. Gardner, a member of FairTest’s National Policy Panel, wrote, “Few tasks in life — and very few tasks in scholarship — actually depend on being able to read passages or solve math problems rapidly. As a teacher, I want my students to read, write and think well; I don’t care how much time they spend on their assignments.” The Association of Educational Therapists among others advocates making extended testing time available to all students.


The pending changes on the SAT and ACT leave the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) as the only major post-secondary entrance exams that have not removed similar “flags.” Disability activists are expected to step up pressure on the tests’ sponsors, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Law School Admissions Council, to implement reforms before additional litigation is required.


• Disability Rights Advocates
• Association of Educational Therapists