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Higher Education and Disability: Improved Federal Enforcement Needed to Better Protect Students' Rights to Testing Accommodations

GAO-12-40 Published: Nov 29, 2011. Publicly Released: Dec 29, 2011.
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What GAO Found

Among accommodations requested and granted in the most recent testing year, approximately three-quarters were for extra time, and about half were for applicants with learning disabilities. High school and postsecondary school officials GAO interviewed reported advising students about which accommodations to request and providing documentation to testing companies, such as a student's accommodations history.

Testing companies included in GAO's study reported that they grant accommodations based on their assessment of an applicant's eligibility under the ADA and whether accommodation requests are appropriate for their tests. Testing companies look for evidence of the functional limitations that prevent the applicant from taking the exam under standard conditions. They also consider what accommodations are appropriate for their tests and may grant accommodations that were different than those requested. For example, one testing company official told GAO that applicants with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder all might request extra time, but may be granted different accommodations given their limitations--extra time for an applicant unable to maintain focus; extra breaks for an applicant unable to sit still for an extended time period; a separate room for an easily distracted applicant.

Documenting need and determining appropriate accommodations can present challenges to students and testing companies. Some applicants GAO interviewed found testing companies' documentation requirements difficult to understand and unreasonable. Most applicants GAO spoke with said they sought accommodations that they were accustomed to using, and some found it frustrating that the testing company would not provide the same accommodations for the test. Testing companies reported challenges with ensuring fairness to all test takers and maintaining the reliability of their tests when making accommodations decisions. Testing company officials said that reviewing requests that contain limited information can make it difficult to make an informed decision. Some testing company officials also expressed concern with being required to provide accommodations that best ensure an applicant's test results reflect the applicant's aptitude rather than providing what they consider to be reasonable accommodations.

Federal enforcement of laws and regulations governing testing accommodations is largely complaint-driven and involves multiple agencies. While Justice has overall responsibility for enforcing compliance under the ADA, Education and HHS have enforcement responsibilities under the Rehabilitation Act for testing companies that receive federal financial assistance from them. Education and HHS officials said that they investigate each eligible complaint. Justice officials said they review each complaint at in-take, but they do not make a determination on every complaint because of the large volume of complaints it receives. Justice has clarified ADA requirements for testing accommodations primarily by revising its regulations, but it lacks a strategic approach to targeting enforcement. Specifically, Justice has not fully utilized complaint data--either its own or that of other agencies--to inform its efforts. Justice officials said that they reviewed complaints on a case-by-case basis but did not conduct systematic searches of their data to inform their overall approach to enforcement. Additionally, Justice has not initiated compliance reviews of testing companies, and its technical assistance on this subject has been limited. GAO recommends that the Department of Justice take steps to develop a strategic approach to enforcement such as by analyzing its data and updating its technical assistance manual. Justice agreed with GAO's recommendation.

Why GAO Did This Study

Standardized tests are often required to gain admission into postsecondary schools or to obtain professional certifications. Federal disability laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require entities that administer these tests to provide accommodations, such as extended time or changes in test format, to students with disabilities. GAO examined (1) the types of accommodations individuals apply for and receive and how schools assist them, (2) factors testing companies consider when making decisions about requests for accommodations, (3) challenges individuals and testing companies experience in receiving and granting accommodations, and (4) how federal agencies enforce compliance with relevant disability laws and regulations. To conduct this work, GAO interviewed disability experts; individuals with disabilities; officials from high schools, postsecondary schools, testing companies; and officials from the Departments of Justice (Justice), Education, and Health and Human Services (HHS). GAO also reviewed testing company policies and data, federal complaint and case data for selected testing companies, and relevant laws and regulations.


GAO recommends that the Department of Justice take steps to develop a strategic approach to enforcement such as by analyzing its data and updating its technical assistance manual. Justice agreed with GAO’s recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Justice Justice should take steps to develop a strategic approach to target its enforcement efforts related to testing accommodations. For example, the strategic approach could include (1) analyzing its complaint and case data to prioritize enforcement and technical assistance, (2) working with the Secretaries of Education and HHS to develop a formal coordination strategy, and (3) updating technical assistance materials to reflect current requirements.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Justice (Justice) has used various strategies to target its enforcement efforts related to testing accommodations. For example, Justice published a technical assistance document to reflect current requirements on testing accommodations for individuals with disabilities who take standardized tests. The document outlines the requirements for providing testing accommodations such as who is entitled to them, what types must be provided, and what documentation may be required of the person requesting them. In addition, Justice worked closely with the Department of Education and other federal agencies to ensure that relevant federal agencies are coordinating their activities with respect to testing accommodations. As a result of their coordination efforts, Justice learned that several states use standardized college entrance exams to meet statewide high school assessment requirements and have faced obstacles to securing testing accommodations for their students. In December 2015, Justice officials presented a webinar to state education personnel about testing accommodations under the ADA. The webinar, technical assistance documents, and coordination efforts are helpful strategies that inform various parties about the requirements for providing testing accommodation and can facilitate the agency's enforcement of those requirements. Although Justice has used these strategies to address this recommendation, going forward, GAO encourages the agency to develop a more strategic approach to prioritizing cases that come into its complaint system so that it can make the most strategic use of its limited resources.

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