I was already starting to feel better when the proctor began reading the instructions in that standardized-test monotone. I looked at the exam booklet and went into a state of mild shock. The whole situation the No. 2 pencils, the regimented exam procedure, the rows of desks made me feel a little like a Rhesus monkey about to have a metal probe stuck through its cerebrum.
My learning disability had taught me to be afraid of anything standardized and ostensibly a measure of intelligence. I had done poorly on too many tests and seen too many scores that made me wonder if there was something terribly wrong with my mind. The SAT looked a lot like another one of those exams. It looked like another opportunity to fail, big time, according to the carefully designed standards of a national organization.
It had taken me a long time to regain my confidence after years of thinking of myself as a little slower than everyone else. Even by the end of high school, I was still a little unsure of how smart I actually was. A test like the SAT presented itself on one level as a chance to prove myself, and an opportunity to show that I was better than all those old scores.
On a deeper level, it threatened to peer inside my brain like a medical instrument and see that I was in fact as stupid as I had always expected. It threatened to show me for all that I was, and all that I was not.
As a student with LD who plans to go to college, I thought that the SAT had a different symbolic meaning than it does for other students. It is not just one more rung on the ladder that took me through grade school, into high school, and that will end at a good college and possibly graduate school. For me, the SAT was a rung on a different sort of ladder, one that twisted around backwards, that missed rungs in places, and that seemed bound to collapse at any moment.
It was clear to me that I needed to do well on the exam. I desperately wanted to show that I could do well, as much as I feared the test would prove once and for all my stupidity.
As much as I wanted to do well, I was conflicted about the prospect of taking the exam with accommodations. The SAT was one of the most important topics of conversation in high school, especially among my friends, and I did not want anyone to think that I was somehow cheating the system. Because people were beginning to see me as a good student, the idea that I might get extra time on such an important test was extremely embarrassing to me.
For the first time, my learning disability presented me with a clear ethical dilemma. Say what you want about the SAT, but it's hard to deny that it has a profound effect on where one goes to college. I had done well in high school, so for me, it mean the difference between attending a very good college, and having the ability to choose among many of the very best schools, or not choose them if that's what I wanted. I was stuck between giving myself a perceived "advantage" in the admissions process, or proving that I could excel without special treatment, but at the same time risking imminent failure.
I ended up taking the accommodations, but I was very embarrassed about it at the time. I felt like I had done something wrong and I sincerely believe that I had cheated, in a small way, by taking the easy way out.
Next year, the SAT will change in some fairly substantial ways. The new changes to the exam, particularly the writing component, would have been a real boost for someone with my type of learning disability, which by high school tended to manifest itself more in math than in writing. The most important change on the new exam, though, will be the elimination of the asterisk by the scores of students who take the exam with accommodations.
LD advocates have fought for a long time to eliminate that asterisk, which is given to anyone who takes the test under "non-standard" conditions. When I was in high school, that asterisk was a symbol of everything I felt I was doing wrong. I was taking a standardized test under "non-standard" conditions. My scores were in effect meaningless. I was never very worried that my application would be read differently because of my LD. Instead, that asterisks meant that my scores were different, that I was different, and my accommodations to some extent made my score less valid.
This small change may do a lot to help LD students face the SAT with more confidence, and in a subtle way, make students feel that they have earned the scores they receive. The asterisk provided little relevant information for the colleges that received the scores. Because the SAT is such a powerful symbol in our culture, taking the asterisk away will help to legitimate the accommodations that students receive, and ensure that the students who receive these accommodations are treated just the same as every other applicant.
Scott Grinsell is a senior at Williams College in Massachusetts. He was recently awarded a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford University for the next two years.