Students with learning disabilities are going to college in record numbers, and the first step in that process is often standardized college admission tests. If your high schooler has a learning disability and is on an IEP, you might think that he’d automatically qualify for accommodations on such tests as the SAT and ACT. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Accommodations on admission tests can include extra time, larger print, frequent breaks, and preferential seating, all of which may be necessary to even the playing field for teenagers with learning issues. But to get them, students must prove that they (a) have a learning disability and (b) need the accommodations.

At the College Board, some 70,000 students request accommodations each year, according to Steven Pereira, executive director of the association’s Services for Students With Disabilities. Usually 80% to 85% are granted their request. In many cases, proving the disability and need is straightforward, but not always, he says. “A lot of factors weigh in,” Pereira says.

Experts agree that the key to getting accommodations is time and documentation.

“You have to be on top of this early,” says Julieta Contreras, a tutor at Chyten Tutors and Test Preparation in Scottsdale, Ariz. She adds that parents have to get involved to make sure the school and student are working on the application early enough. “Usually in high school, parents stop going into school, but this is a time they need to start advocating for their child, even if the kids are resistant.”

Contreras suggests starting the process by the end of sophomore year, and Pereira says that freshman year is not too early.

How to apply

The first step to getting accommodations is to apply for them. Parents can either have the school submit the forms using the College Board’s online service, or they can do it themselves. Pereira says that since the school usually has all the documentation on hand (and has experience filling out the application), it’s probably easier for the school to submit the application.

For the ACT, there are separate online applications, depending on the accommodations you’re asking for.


The main thing is that the child must have either a 504 or an IEP for some time prior to asking for the accommodations. In other words, don’t wait until your child is a junior in high school to get him tested for a learning disability. If a student has a formal plan for four school months and the school submits all the documentation proving the disability and the need for accommodations, “we most likely will approve it,” Pereira says.

But just having an IEP isn’t a guarantee — if the plan doesn’t list similar accommodations the student is asking for, he will have to prove that he needs them. (In other words, if your child has been taking standardized tests in high school without extended time, it’s unlikely that College Board will grant extra time for the SAT.)

For students in private school who may not have a formal plan, or if their documentation is out-of-date, the College Board requires documentation that substantiates the need for accommodations.

The College Board has a panel of in-house experts that reviews applications, Pereira says. The more complex cases are sent to external experts for review.

When to apply

So when should you apply? Pereira suggests that students apply in their freshman year. If they are granted the accommodations, they will be in place for all of their testing through high school. If they don’t receive accommodations, they still have plenty of time to reapply. Each application takes about seven weeks to process. If your child is not granted accommodations because of missing documentation, you can resubmit the application with new documentation, but it will take another seven weeks to process.

“You have to be on top of this early,” Contreras confirms. As a tutor, she has seniors come to her two weeks before the test asking for help to get accommodations or for tutoring, but by that point, “there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

The right accommodations

Pereira says that asking for the right accommodations can make the application process go smoother. Some students ask for the same ones they get in school, such as duplicate textbooks, which are clearly not appropriate for the SAT.
“Some things in the IEP don’t make sense for the standardized test environment,” Periera says.

Examples of accommodations are colored paper, a magnifying machine, a scribe, a private room, and special lighting. For a full list, check the College Board site.

Also, when asking for extra time, keep in mind that the student has to allot that much time for the test. Students who get double time on a four-hour test, for example, will be working on the test for eight hours.

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Updated: March 11, 2016