Testing Accommodations on Postgraduate and Licensing Exams
By Dr. Sharon Teruya, Learning Disabilities Specialist, UCLA
Jo Anne Simon, a leading disability rights attorney, states that the testing agencies and licensing boards (e.g., MCAT, LSAT, GRE, etc.) or professional licensing exams (e.g. bar exam, medical licensing exam, etc) are now more restrictive in their interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and thus it is getting tougher for students to be granted accommodations, even though accommodations were received at institutions like UCLA.
The ADA does not define the terms "physical or mental impairment," "substantially limits," and "major life activities" so that it has been a source of interpretive disagreement in the courts.
This recent trend in conservatively interpreting the law is exemplified in the case of Gonzalez v. National Board of Medical Examiners (MBME) which was ruled on this past August. Mike Gonzalez, a medical student at the University of Michigan, took the Board to court for refusing to grant him extra time on the USMLE Step 1 exam. Mike was receiving the accommodation of extra time on exams at the U.M. Medical School as he had received for exams taken during his last two undergraduate years at UCD.
The court ruled in favor of the NBME which argued that Mike is not disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The MBNE had convinced the court that Gonzalez: 1) did not have a disability because his assessment for a learning disability indicated that his reading ability fell within the average to superior range when compared to "most people" and 2) that he did not have disability that affected the major life activity of working.
Since the Gonzalez case was decided, a major case concerning academic accommodations was ruled on by an appellate court in New York. In this case Jo Anne Simon and her client, Marilyn Bartlett, contested a ruling by a district court in favor of the New York State Board of Law Examiners’ denial of accommodations to Dr. Bartlett. In contrast to the court hearing of the Gonzalez case, this court compared Dr. Bartlett to her peers who had "comparable training, skills and abilities and also deemed the bar examination as having implications for a major life activity. The ruling on the Bartlett Case is seen as setting an encouraging precedent for individuals with learning disabilities.
Given the mixed conclusion of the courts and the uncertainty of how other and future courts will rule on what determines a disability and what defines a major life activity, the request for accommodations should be viewed with caution. Barbara Guyer, Ed.D., Director of Marshall University’s H.E.L.P. Program and a program for premedical students who have learning disabilities, advises her students to prepare for their postgraduate entrance exams as if they were not going to receive testing accommodations.
The professional staff who review applications for special accommodations on the MCAT and LSAT strongly recommend that one should submit applications for tests and special accommodations as early as possible. This is especially important because significant numbers of students provide inadequate or unacceptable documentation of their disability. The requirements for documentation can vary from school to school or testing organization to testing organization. One needs to be sure of exactly the type of testing that is required to show a disability as well as what professional with what type of licensing is allowed to make a specific diagnosis. It would not be too early to begin investigating what and when one needs to submit one’s application and documentation for testing accommodations. Some testing organizations may require that you send in your application earlier than the general application closing date. If one’s request for accommodations is denied an early submission of an application may provide one with enough time to appeal the decision and obtain the necessary additional testing that may be required. In some instances one may need to obtain grade school report cards and progress reports to support a diagnosis. Many postgraduate school exams are given in the Fall of the student’s senior year so Spring quarter should be the latest time when one should begin to look into what is needed to apply for an exam and accommodations. If one has applied for the test once before, one should be sure to take care in finding out if the requirements for accommodations are the same as when one last applied. Testing agencies may make modifications in the process or requirements for accommodations.
Besides preparing for the application for postgraduate entrance and licensing exams, one should prepare for a major test in other ways. Dr. Guyer suggests that students regulate their life styles with the incorporation of exercise, adequate amounts of sleep, and a balanced diet into their daily routine. She feels that this is especially important for students with learning disabilities and AD/HD. She also recommends experimenting with the use of earplugs when studying and taking tests for college courses to test them out or acclimate to them before the major exam. Finally, Dr. Guyer recommends that if one needs to take medication, begin treatment as early as possible before the testing date. Often medication dosages may need to be adjusted or even trials of different medications may be required.
In summary if you are applying to take an examination for entrance into graduate school or for licensing, remember the following points:
If you would like this information in an alternative format, contact the Office for Students with Disabilities at (310) 825-1501 voice, (310) 206-6083 tty or (310) 825-9656 fax.