The ACT has recently made a somewhat under-reported change to its accommodation policies.

In the past, students with extra time who took the non-Writing version were given 5 hours to complete all four multiple-choice sections, whereas students who took the Writing version were given 6 hours for the four multiple-choice sections plus the Essay.

Although students could not move back and forth between sections, they could divide up the time in any way they wanted — so if they wanted to spend an extra 10 minutes on Reading, for example, they could potentially “borrow” that time from the less important Essay. For a slow reader with good comprehension, those 10 minutes could easily make a difference of two or three points.

Students not taking the Writing version could still divide their 5 hours as they wanted; however, they did not have the option of borrowing against the Essay, putting them at a potentially significant disadvantage.

The new policy allots both groups of test-takers a maximum of five hours for the four multiple-choice sections; students taking the Writing portion will receive an additional, separate hour for the Essay. As a result, test-takers will no longer be able to use time from the Essay (which doesn’t count towards the composite) to spend additional time on the more heavily-weighted multiple-choice portion.

While this is obviously an important step in leveling the playing field, I think it’s also fair to say that it comes a bit late.

Full confession: until I learned of the change, by chance through a LinkedIn forum I subscribe to, I was not even aware that the old extra-time policy created such blatant disparities. Now I admit that this was a major blind spot on my part, but I came by it honestly: in my eight years or so of ACT tutoring, not a single one of my students ever took the test without Writing.

And that fact leads me to wonder about another, subtler way in which the old policy very likely served to compound disparities further: colleges that require the ACT with Writing are generally more selective than ones that don’t and, as a result, tend to draw from an overall more affluent applicant pool.

Now, students from affluent families have traditionally been a good deal more likely to receive extra time — merited or not. A full psych evaluation can easily cost several thousand dollars (minimum), and let’s face it: cognitive psychologists, particularly ones who specialize in getting kids extra time,  have an incentive to keep their clients happy and interpret borderline to moderate attentional and processing issues — ones that could just as easily result from sleep deprivation, or too many hours in front of screens, or even almost nonexistent anxiety from events that occurred more than a decade previously (Harvard admit!), as from actual neurological problems — as genuine learning disabilities.

One student I worked with from a top suburban district told me that he knew huge numbers of kids who had gamed the system that way. (And his own mother once fed him his brother’s Adderall before a test, just to see if it would boost him up another couple of points).

So by taking the version of the test required by more selective schools, these students were actually gaining access to even more time on the most important part of the test than what their accommodations should have allowed for.

And if a student were coached to identify the parts of the test where five or ten minutes could make the biggest difference — something that very few kids could figure out independently — then their advantage increased yet again.

I’m not saying that there aren’t kids with actual learning disabilities who absolutely, sincerely need the extra time — I worked with some of them too, and it was crystal clear that no one was exaggerating things on their behalf — but I also witnessed enough gaming of the system to make me pretty cynical about the whole thing.

It’s a little hard to imagine what took the ACT so long to catch onto the fact that its policy could be exploited this way. Naiveté seems a bit of a stretch, but well, the ACT isn’t always ahead of the curve on these things. Or maybe it was just sheer bureaucratic inertia. Either way, it required a truly remarkable ability to bury one’s head in the sand.

But I suppose better late than never.

Update: A commenter made the following point, which I think is sufficiently important to be added here. The old policy could be exploited even beyond the ways discussed above by students applying to schools that truly superscore the ACT. During a first test, for example, they could pick two sections to spend extra extra time on, then do the same for the other two sections during a second test. They could even take the test three times or more and focus on a different section each time. Again, since only more affluent students are likely to take the test multiple times, that’s yet another tilt in their favor. I could easily see a student boosting their composite a good 3-5 points that way.