Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Discrimination in the Ivory Tower

This week's guest blog is by Robert Tudisco, Esq. 

One of the most difficult choices a college student with a disability can make is to embark on a competitive and demanding career that involves postgraduate education, such as attending law school. What makes that decision even more difficult is the fact that the testing process to get into law school requires a standardized test such as the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), which often provides a barrier to students with ADHD and executive functioning challenges. Standardized high-stakes testing does not effectively show who will be a successful attorney or doctor, but poor scores can be an insurmountable barrier.

Even more unfortunate is that the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), the organization that administers the LSAT, is among the most difficult to agree to reasonable testing accommodations that are authorized by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Despite the ADA, the LSAC continues to require that students provide an updated evaluation, costing several thousand dollars (which students are required to pay for themselves), and copies of every single IEP or 504 plan that the students have ever had, which requires amassing hundreds of pages of documentation going back fifteen to twenty years or longer. In addition to these stringent requirements, this process can take six months or longer with little or no transparency. As a result, many students decide to forego accommodations that they need based upon their disability, or drop out of the process because of its difficulty.

To add insult to injury, if a student rides out the process and is lucky enough to receive accommodations from the LSAC, the LSAC then flags that student’s test score and reports to the law schools that the student received testing accommodations and that “scores earned under nonstandard time conditions do not have the same meaning as scores earned under standard time conditions, so these scores are identified as nonstandard.” This process flags not only that the student has a disability and hence requires accommodations, but that the student’s scores are essentially invalid. In addition to completely nullifying the accommodations that the student fought so hard for, the practice is highly discriminatory. It is so discriminatory, in fact, that nearly all other high-stakes testing organizations have discontinued the practice of flagging accommodated scores for tests such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, etc. Moreover, the practice is so discriminatory that the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights adopted a formal resolution to urge the LSAC to discontinue this practice and to provide more transparency into the process by which accommodations are requested and to streamline the turnaround time. At each turn, the LSAC has refused to modify their procedures.

California Assemblyman Ricardo Lara recently drafted legislation (AB 2122 Lara) to prohibit the practice of flagging test scores and for the LSAC to adopt a more transparent and streamlined practice to process requests for testing accommodations. This legislation was fiercely opposed by the LSAC. However, students with disabilities have a voice through organizations such as the Edge Foundation, CHADD, and many others who partnered to offer letters of support for this legislation. Initially this support was helpful in the bill receiving unanimous bipartisan support in committee.

On Wednesday, April 18, 2012, the bill was on the California State Assembly floor for a vote and again received opposition from the LSAC. Through the efforts of attorneys, advocates and organizations such as the Edge Foundation, CHADD, and many others, the legislation passed by an overwhelming majority (65-6). The bill now heads to the California Senate Higher Education Committee. It must pass the committee, then pass on the Senate floor, and will then need to be signed into law by the governor. The disability community that has been supporting the bill is expecting renewed opposition from the LSAC, which believes that accommodations give a student an unfair advantage and cannot appreciate that for a student with disabilities, accommodations are not an advantage but a means to level the playing field.

I have been a successful practicing attorney for over twenty years. I am also an adult diagnosed with ADHD. I can say from my own personal experience and that of many of my colleagues that my poor score on the LSAT was not at all reflective of my intelligence, ability, and my passion to advocate for my clients. We in the disability community now have the opportunity, and I believe the obligation, to provide a voice for those students with disabilities who want to become agents of change. This bill and the issue go way beyond ADHD, affecting all students with disabilities who need accommodations to receive the same opportunities that students without disabilities. This right is guaranteed by federal law, and hopefully by state law in California.

Support students with disabilities and show your support for this legislation. We will keep you posted as AB 2122 moves through the Senate.

Robert M. Tudisco, Esq., is executive director of the Edge Foundation.