For students with learning disabilities and/or ADD/ADHD, figuring out whether to take the SAT or ACT isn’t so straightforward. My first piece of advice is to apply for accommodations on both tests. Then evaluate the differences in approved (or declined) accommodations and consider which test to take. With the impending changes to the SAT and ACT – an overhaul of the SAT and tweaking of the ACT – this may be more important than ever. Sometimes SAT and ACT approve identical accommodations; but, often they do not.
Planning For Accomodations
It’s essential that students who need accommodations plan ahead. Well before applying for accommodations, students and parents need to know who at school serves as the disability coordinator with The College Board (PSAT, SAT, AP) and ACT. Then, make sure to reach out to that person in 9th grade to start the process rolling. You should refer to the SAT and ACT websites for documentation guidelines. Unless the necessary documentation is on-file at school well ahead of time, it is unlikely that any testing accommodations will be approved. From there the process takes two different paths.
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SAT Accomodations Process
In recent years, The College Board has moved to an on-line accommodations request system. After parents sign a consent form the school disability coordinator can proceed with the request. If the school has all of the disability documentation on file, the student has an IEP, 504 or other accommodations plan at school, and the student has been using accommodations regularly, then the process is typically a smooth one. Sometimes the approval process is fast with a ten day turn-around, but it can take up to eight weeks for The College Board to review and respond to accommodations requests. The beauty is, once approved, the student receives a code (SSD number) to use when registering for all future PSAT and SAT tests. That code also applies to AP exams, ensuring that those tests will be taken with proper accommodations in place. It’s important to note that the accommodations request process is different from the actual test registration. The school initiates the accommodations request; the family initiates test registration. Most students with accommodations take the SAT on the regularly scheduled Saturday in a separate room. But, some accommodations bump the student to school-based testing which takes place at the school’s discretion between the regularly scheduled SAT Saturday and the following Wednesday.
ACT Accomodations Process
ACT does not have an on-line system for applying for accommodations; the student, parents, and school must partner to complete the necessary paperwork. Also, the form completed depends on the type of accommodations needed.
- Extended Time National Testing: This form should be completed by students who need an additional 50% extended time (most common). With this accommodation, students take the ACT at a test center in a separate room with other students approved for extended time. Students self-pace through the exam. To apply for this accommodation, first register for the ACT on-line, then complete the student and parent portion of the accommodations request form, then forward that form and a copy of the registration to your school’s disability coordinator for final processing. You will hear back from ACT in about four weeks. Once approved, you can register for subsequent ACT tests using the on-line registration system.
- School-based Testing: This is for students who need more than 50% extended time and/or other accommodations that cannot be provided at a test center. For these accommodations, your school’s disability coordinator must complete a form that the student and parent both sign. This form serves as an accommodations request and a test registration. Once approved you will receive a “reference” number. That same form will be used each time you register for an ACT test even though your accommodations are already approved. ACT grants a generous three week testing window to complete the exam.
If you are not approved for the accommodations you seek, you may appeal the decision. Both SAT and ACT allow appeals. For an appeal to be successful you will need to provide new information, such as a more detailed letter from your school’s disability coordinator explaining why the request is reasonable. This is another reason to start the process early – you need to build in time for a potential appeal.
Accommodations will only be granted for professionally diagnosed disabilities. ACT requires an evaluative report that is no more than three years old. College Board will accept a report as old as five years. I always recommend waiting until age 16 to update the psycho-educational testing report so that the tester can administer adult scale instruments. This report will satisfy the documentation requirements for college disability offices and will carry the student through the college years. While accommodations on the SAT and ACT are important, what really counts is having proper accommodations in place in college.
- Update the psycho-educational or neuropsychological report at age 16.
- Work with school disability coordinator to ensure that all necessary papers are in the student’s file.
- Talk with school disability coordinator about types of accommodations. Be aware that some schools are unfamiliar with the school-based testing option.
- Apply for College Board accommodations in grade 10 (or grade 9 if taking SAT subjects tests)
- Apply for ACT accommodations in the year you plan on taking the ACT.
- Allow at least 8 weeks for requests to be processed. I suggest applying in the fall for spring testing.
- Review and compare the accommodations approved by College Board and ACT to determine which is best for you.
- Prep for the chosen test using your accommodations.
- If you are approved for the audio version of the test, ask your school disability coordinator to order practice audio materials.
Finally, remember that testing is one piece of the college admission process. In your college search you should identify colleges and universities that best meet and accommodate you learning needs.
Hannah Serota has served as College Counselor at McLean School in Potomac, MD since 2000. She also works as an Independent Educational Consultant, based in Loudoun County, VA. Hannah’s career in college admission began at Oberlin College in Ohio,where she worked as Assistant, then Associate Director of Admissions. Hannah holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Oberlin College and M.Ed in Counseling and Development from George Mason University. She also holds professional membership in IECA, HECA, and NACAC. Over the years she has counseled hundreds of students and families, including many with learning disabilities and ADHD, through the college admission process.