Calif. court denies extra MCAT time for students with learning disabilities

Recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act may help address some concerns at issue in the case.

By — Posted March 2, 2009

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In California, aspiring medical school students with learning disabilities lost their bid to get extra time or other accommodations when taking the Medical College Admission Test.

The state Supreme Court in February declined to review the case. The decision leaves intact an appeals court ruling that California's disability and antidiscrimination laws do not require the Assn. of American Medical Colleges to grant special treatment to candidates diagnosed with dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or other learning disabilities.

Four applicants diagnosed with reading-related or other learning disorders sued the association in a class-action lawsuit in 2004 after their requests for more time and a private room to take the MCAT were denied. In evaluating the petitions, the AAMC, which administers the test, relied on a narrower definition of disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But the students had argued that broader state standards should apply.

The 1st District Court of Appeal disagreed in an October 2008 opinion, saying that such accommodations were required only to the extent that they met the federal standard. There were no allegations that the AAMC failed to comply with the ADA, court records show.

"This is just one case in a larger struggle," said the students' lawyer, Joshua Konecky. "The goal at the end of all this is to make sure people with dyslexia or other learning disabilities are evaluated on the merits of their individual record, without the suspicion they are taking advantage of the system and with the understanding they do need accommodations for exams to be a fair measure of their knowledge and skills."

Defining disability

Despite the setback, Konecky noted that amendments to the ADA passed last year provide a wider definition of disability. That likely will make it more difficult for testing organizations to deny students with learning disabilities requests for reasonable accommodations, he said.

The AAMC is reviewing the amendments, which may affect some cases, said the organization's attorney, Robert A. Burgoyne. Nevertheless, the California high court's decision helps ensure the integrity of the nationwide MCAT.

"This leaves in place the AAMC's ability to have a single, uniform policy for handling accommodation requests, regardless of the state in which the examinee is located. It's about fairness to the examinees," Burgoyne said.

The AAMC continues to evaluate requests for assistance based on documentation of a cognitive impairment and whether it substantially limits a student's test-taking ability, he said. The organization may allow for additional time or a separate room, and it flags test scores to notify medical schools of any special circumstances.

Three of the four plaintiffs in the case since have gone to medical school, Konecky said. According to court records, two of the students who sued were allowed to take the MCAT with the accommodations they requested, after submitting additional documentation of their disabilities. The two other plaintiffs took the test without extra help, scoring in the 90th to 92nd and 69th to 74th percentiles.

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