I vividly remember my experience preparing for college during eleventh grade. My basketball-loving high school counselor Mr. Brousseau pointed me to the PSAT as a way to prepare for the big one: the SATs. I had been practicing with the College Board’s online practice tests whenever I could. I remember the anxiety I experienced coming in for the PSAT and that wasn’t even the real thing. My mom dropped me off at my high school early that Saturday morning and I nervously sat myself down at an open desk in one of the math classrooms with at least 10 other students in my high school. This was one of the first tests in a long time that I didn’t have accommodations for. I honestly don’t know which was more nerve wracking: the people around me or the test that was about to be on my desk. I had prepared my usual ziplock bag of test supplies – several pencils and a Texas Instruments calculator. Soon the proctor distributed the practice tests and I was a fearful matador in front of my frightening bull that was this practice SAT test. My nerves were frantic as my skin felt like ants marching underneath. I tried breathing to relax, but I quickly faced a crushing blow when the batteries on my calculator died. As someone who couldn’t do any math to save my life, I felt utterly helpless and unsure of how to proceed. My test anxiety was getting the better of me and I felt like I was watching my college future slipping away. I left the test that Saturday feeling beyond defeated and disappointed in myself.
That disappointment faded into a fiery sense of stubborn determination when I sat down to take the actual SAT test in the spring. It also helped tremendously that I was able to take the test with accommodations for time, and a separate and quiet location. I sat down again with my ziplock baggie of pencils, my Texas Instruments calculator and an entire package of batteries (I wasn’t playing that game again). I was still absolutely terrified of the test, but somehow, I felt less frazzled than last time. Each time I exhaled, it felt like I was shedding the weight of my inner buried anxieties, which I had placed on a single test (which was absolutely unfair to do to myself). In the end, I was right and I did really well. The irony is that I didn’t end up needing to take it because I started at a community college, but I learned a lot about myself from the experience.
You see, before the PSAT/SAT one-two punch, I wasn’t really serious about going to college. It was this thing that all of my teachers and guidance counselors had an opinion about and I was kind of flirting with it in a noncommittal way. Taking the test taught me through a so-called failed practice test that yes, this was something I wanted and because I let it slip through my fingers, I was going to fight like hell to get that chance.
When I read the news about the FBI uncovering a college admissions scam with fraudulent testing, I felt so many emotions reading the story. Mostly anger and frustration as I saw these students were falsely and unethically obtaining testing accommodations for the ACT and SAT under the guise of having learning disabilities. As an autistic student now working on grad school, I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the accommodations I’ve needed during my high school and college career so far because I know that doesn’t always happen. I took the SAT with accommodations of extended time and a separate and quiet location which helped me tremendously so when I read about students without disabilities falsifying having learning disabilities to gain access to accommodations in order to buy and cheat their way into college with so-called good test scores, I felt angry that people who have busted their butts and taken the SAT the right way may have been cheated out of an education at their preferred colleges because some privileged white kids made their own lane and fraudulently bought their way into college. Simply put, the people who took and didn’t cheat were cheated – whether or not they have disabilities. If I’m honest, it’s especially infuriating when you are familiar with some of the statistics for post-secondary education like I have become from one of my disability studies courses this semester.
I literally just wrote a paper on the statistical divide in college enrollment, which for a brief review, revealed a tremendous gap between the enrollment rates for students with disabilities and those without. Add to that factors like economic and racial privilege that gets stacked against students with disabilities who are already disadvantaged when it comes to getting a college education. The stats I used for my paper may have been 10 years old, but a 2011-2012 U.S. Department of Education study shows that only 11% of the college population is comprised of students with disabilities.
I also felt incredibly sad for the many students who like me are actually disabled and set out to attend college the right way and had been denied in order to make room for these people who cheated and scammed the system that’s already rigged against individuals with disabilities. This whole story brings up a lot of feelings for me in regard to how people with disabilities are treated. People without disabilities are taking advantage of the resources that so many people with disabilities have had to fight for their entire lives.
I couldn’t help but think of my experience obtaining accommodations which actually hasn’t been smooth sailing. I’ve had to fight to get the support that I need throughout my educational career. In first grade, I was held back a year in order to obtain special education support services, before being formally diagnosed as autistic. I literally had to repeat a grade to get the services I needed, and these parents simply paid for access?
In college, fighting for support was often an uphill battle. Trying to advocate for yourself and the assistance you need, on top of all the other college priorities is a stress, and a distraction. I’ve had professors who have denied me my accommodations such as a math education class when I was denied use of my calculator despite it being on my approved accommodations. While in many senses, I was lucky to have had relatively medium issues obtaining accommodations – other students with disabilities aren’t always so lucky.
Having able bodied students coached into claiming disabilities to get accommodations they don’t need is a slap in the face of disability activists who throughout history have worked hard in the fight to gain equal rights and fight unnecessary barriers placed by an ableist society that discriminates and constantly stigmatizes people with disabilities.
This behavior sets us back. People fight for accessibility which doesn’t always come easy. This whole scandal is insulting. What happens now? Will these parents face consequences for their actions? Will the colleges do anything to ensure this behavior ever stops or will it just continue on? Because let’s be real: this isn’t new, it’s just an instance in which people were actually caught. What will become of the degrees these students received? Do the students get off with no consequences? Because weren’t they adults who could have stood up and said no thanks, I’d rather get by on my OWN Merits?!?
Perhaps this outrageous story can be an opportunity for a dialogue on the realities of education and disability.