Ruling: MCAT must adapt for learning disabled

Students who sued say the California decision could move other testing agencies to provide similar arrangements. The AAMC plans to appeal.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Nov. 27, 2006

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California medical school hopefuls with learning disabilities may find it easier to get extra testing time for the Medical College Admission Test.

California's Superior Court of Alameda County ruled in October that the Assn. of American Medical Colleges, which administers the MCAT, must use the state's broader version of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when determining if people diagnosed with learning disorders such as dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are entitled to special accommodations.

"Hopefully, the suspicion that I faced when I applied for accommodations on the MCAT will go away and people with learning disabilities will now be able to take the MCAT and other national tests on a level playing field with their nondisabled peers," said Brendan Pierce, one of the four students diagnosed with learning disabilities who sued the AAMC in 2004 for denying them accommodations.

Robert Burgoyne, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented the AAMC, said the decision, if it stands, erodes the MCAT's value.

"Ultimately, what's at stake is the usefulness of MCAT scores to medical schools," Burgoyne said. "The whole point of having the MCAT is to provide medical schools with an objective measure to compare applicants."

The AAMC, which uses the ADA's more stringent definition of disabled, told the court that giving extra time for the test altered the standardized conditions that make MCAT scores uniform and may give an unfair advantage to students receiving it.

According to the court decision in the class-action lawsuit, the AAMC said individuals with clinical diagnoses of learning disabilities who have demonstrated academic achievement were not disabled because their intelligence and achievement compensated for their disabilities.

A testing expert from the students' side told the court the MCAT measured knowledge and problem-solving skills, not reading speed. The expert said more testing time would give those with learning disabilities an equal chance to demonstrate knowledge.

The court agreed. "There is no evidence in the record demonstrating that medical students or physicians need to read at any particular pace to be competent," the opinion states.

The AAMC plans to appeal the ruling. Burgoyne said it could be a year before the lawsuit is resolved and that the AAMC would apply uniform standards based on the ADA while the case is on appeal.

"There's no sense of how much difficulty you need to have to meet California's definition of disabled," Burgoyne said. But he was pleased that the court affirmed the AAMC's practice of flagging test scores of those who had extra time on the test.

Joshua Konecky, an attorney for one student, said he expected the decision to impact how other standardized tests are given in California. He also believes that once these organizations make exceptions for students in California, they will do so in other states. Many testing agencies, such those that administer the Law School Admission Test or the SAT, have policies similar to the AAMC.

Pierce is now a second-year student at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The AAMC eventually granted him additional time and a quiet room to take the MCAT, however, he was able to remain part of the class-action lawsuit.

Another student won his appeal to the AAMC for accommodations on the MCAT and is in medical school. Two of the students are still waiting for accommodations to take the test, their attorney said.

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Case at a glance

Andres Turner et al. v. Assn. of American Medical Colleges

Venue: California Superior Court of Alameda County
At issue: Whether students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, were unfairly denied extra time to take the Medical College Admission Test under California's disability statutes. The court said yes.
Potential impact: Students say the decision gives those with learning disabilities an equal chance to demonstrate their knowledge on the MCAT. The Assn. of American Medical Colleges says the decision compromises the usefulness of MCAT scores.

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