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A college application secret of wealthy families: Extra time for SATs

College Board CEO talks SAT adversity score

Some wealthy families may be gaming the system as their children prepare to apply for colleges, with students at wealthy high schools more than twice as likely to qualify for extra time to complete the SATs or ACTs than those at poor schools, a new analysis finds.

About 4.2 percent of students at wealthy high schools qualified for a 504 designation, a plan that enables the students to qualify for accommodations such as extra test-taking time, according to an analysis of federal data for 9,000 by public schools by The Wall Street Journal. By comparison, only 1.6 percent of students in poor high schools qualified for the same designation. 

Gaining admission to college in America was once viewed as a meritocracy, although a recent college admissions scandal has shed light on the extremes some wealthy families will go to secure admission for their children. Yet wealthy families are also engaging in legal methods of gaming the system to give their kids a leg up, such as securing as much as 50 percent extra time to take the competitive college exams. 

College admissions scandal

Qualifying for extra test-taking time -- as well as separate rooms to take the tests -- was part of the strategy developed by William Singer, the consultant who masterminded the college admissions scam. In his case, Singer allegedly used the tactic to secure separate rooms for his clients' children, making it easier to hand-pick proctors and sneak in a ringer to fix the students' incorrect answers.  

To be sure, the thousands of students who qualify for extra time on the SATs and ACTs claim valid reasons, including learning disabilities. But the practice raises questions about the discrepancy between rich and poor students, including whether the pathway provides yet another advantage for wealthy children. 

"Between 'learning disability exceptions' and 'test preparation services,' anyone who doesn't understand that college admission tests are hopelessly biased against poor kids is just not paying attention," as one Twitter user noted. 

504 plans

These plans, named after a federal statute prohibiting discrimination against students with disabilities, can cover a wide range of issues, ranging from anxiety to deafness and other impairments. But critics of 504 plans say some families may be abusing the system in order to secure much-needed extra time for their children on the high-stakes exams. 

Pacing is one of the key issues that high school students need to master in order to complete the SATs and ACTs within their standard time limits. About one-sixth of ACT test-takers don't complete the exam within its normal time limit, the Journal noted. And a redesign of the SAT in 2014 signaled how many students struggle with finishing on time, as fewer than half of students completed the math section in a prototype of the new test. 

Naturally, gaining an extra 50 percent of the allotted time can alleviate some of the stress of time management. And the SATs and ACTs don't alert colleges about whether a student received extra time to complete the tests, eliminating a disincentive for students to request the accommodation. 

Wealth and know-how

The reason for the discrepancy between rich and poor schools may boil down to the intersection of money and knowledge. While high school officials evaluate students and make requests for extra time, wealthy families can also hire consultants to assess their children -- a process than can cost thousands of dollars, putting it out of reach for poor families. 

Wealthy schools, where fewer than 10% of students are on free or reduced-cost school lunches, are giving out 504 designations more freely than in previous years. A decade ago, about 2% of students in these schools qualified for the plans, a rate that had more than doubled to 4.2% by the 2015-16 school year, the Journal analysis found. 

In some wealthy districts, such as Boston's well-heeled Newton suburb, the rate is even higher, with about one-third of students qualifying for extra time.

Poor schools, where more than 75% of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, have also increased their 504 designations, jumping from 0.6% of students in 2009 to 1.6% in the 2015-16 school year, the Journal noted. But the rate still lags wealthier schools. 

Even in 2000, some education officials were concerned about the gap, with a California state report finding the students who received extra test-taking time were predominately white, wealthy and from private schools. Poor students were likely not aware of the process for qualifying, or might not be at a school with resources to help them, the report noted. 

Adversity score

To be sure, there's a push to improve the odds for poor and disadvantaged students. The company behind the SATs is developing an "adversity score" that will reportedly reflect students' family income, environment and educational differences in an effort to level the playing field in the highly competitive college admissions process. 

The score, on a scale of one to 100, will signify "hardship" if a student's environment -- such as the rate of free and reduced-cost lunch students at their school -- pushes their score above 50. Below 50 will be considered "privilege."