Meryl Davids Landau

Schools expand efforts to assist talented students with a common disability

Even high-achieving students may find it difficult to be admitted to competitive colleges, but for those with dyslexia, the hurdles can be higher. A growing number of colleges, though, are showing a greater appreciation for these students.

Some 45 college admissions deans from across the country gathered at Stanford University this past June to learn about high-achieving dyslexic applicants. Experts shared the latest research, and well-known figures -- including California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, financier Charles Schwab, and Delos "Toby" Cosgrove, a heart surgeon and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic -- described their experiences coping with the disability.

"Our goal is to help colleges realize that, because of their intelligence, out-of-the-box thinking, and perseverance, these students can add luster" to their schools, says Sally Shaywitz, the Audrey G. Ratner professor in learning development at Yale University who helped organize the event.

A decade ago, Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, demonstrated in her research that fully one in five students has the condition, with males and females sharing it in roughly equal numbers. Dyslexia makes it difficult for a person to retrieve or correctly order the basic sounds, or "phonemes," of spoken language (like the "k," "aah," and "t" sounds that make the word cat, for example).

The result: slow, laborious reading, problems retrieving the right word when speaking -- especially when under stress -- and writing that is rife with misspellings. These issues can cause teachers who don't understand to misjudge these students' ability.

In a 2010 study, Shaywitz documented that while IQ level and reading ability are linked in typical readers, they are not linked in people with dyslexia. Many high-achieving dyslexics have compensating strengths that enable them to rise to the top in various fields.

The main stumbling block for even the most accomplished college applicants with dyslexia is the standardized entrance exam. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, testing agencies have a duty to provide accommodations to students with disabilities. These commonly include more time to take the test, use of a private room, or access to a scribe to record answers.

According to a 1991 study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley , this makes a difference. Dyslexic students taking a standardized reading test scored on par with their peers when granted extra time, but lagged significantly when they were not. Importantly, students without the disability produced virtually the same scores regardless of whether they were given additional time.

But getting such help can be a challenge for those who need it. Each year the College Board administers the SAT to more than 2 million individuals. According to Steven Pereira, the College Board's executive director of services for students with disabilities, about 32,000 members of the class of 2010 took the test with accommodations.

Pereira says that about 85 percent of all students annually who request assists receive them if they can document their disabilities. However, Shaywitz points out that since dyslexics alone are about 20 percent of the population, the fact that so few students are accommodated suggests there are flaws in how they are handled.

Lori Vise, an independent educational consultant at Bass Educational Services, believes several factors may be at work, including students' erroneous fear that their test results will be flagged when reported to colleges. Families also may not be aware that such options exist. And though the ADA requires testing agencies to provide accommodations in a timely way, Shaywitz says, the review process generally takes weeks and can be burdensome.

The College Board, for instance, requires students to supply documents addressing seven criteria, including their relevant educational and medical history, descriptions of the diagnostic examinations done, and an explanation of how the condition affects their test-taking ability. Many families may simply not have the wherewithal to file the necessary paperwork.

In February, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the National Board of Medical Examiners, which administers exams for medical licenses, that could provide a template for how testing agencies meet the ADA requirements. The settlement stipulates that the NBME must supply reasonable accommodations to test-takers with disabilities and make documentation less burdensome. But until all testing agencies adjust their policies, Vise suggests that students seek classroom accommodations as early as freshman year in high school in case additional testing or records are required.

Increasingly, colleges are assessing how standardized testing and their own admissions processes may be leading them to exclude talented dyslexic students. Greg Buckles, the dean of admissions at Middlebury College , says his school has long evaluated prospects "holistically" -- that is, looking beyond exam scores and GPAs.

But after attending the conference for deans last year, Buckles says, he now feels better able to evaluate dyslexic students whose test scores may fall below the school's norms. If they demonstrate a flair for film or video or if they have developed "unusually strong leadership or consensus-building skills," he notes, "they can bring these attributes to our campus."

The kinds of ADA-mandated accommodations that dyslexic students generally get are equivalent to those for students with other disabilities. Besides extra time on tests, they might receive textbooks and other reading materials in audio formats and get permission to receive class notes from the instructor or a fellow student.

An understanding professor can also be key. "In my senior year at the University of Chicago , my thesis adviser kept looking at my drafts and saying, 'You have such great ideas, but you are messing up the grammar,'" recalls Allison Schwartz, who graduated in 2008 and received her master's degree in American studies from Columbia University this past spring. The professor showed Schwartz how to correct her errors, and a teaching assistant even wrote out a set of grammar rules for her to memorize.

Still, not all colleges offer sufficient accommodations, laments Vise. For example, even schools that have the technology and staff to scan textbooks into computers often may not complete this task until weeks into the semester. Well-endowed, private colleges tend to offer more support, Vise says. But she adds that some public institutions, like University of Arizona and University of Vermont , and Marshall University in West Virginia, do have extensive resources.

Though there is no single model to guide dyslexic students applying to college, experts and those who have made it through the admissions process offer some useful tips:

1. Consider class size:

Megan Diffey applied to the Burnett Honors College at the University of Central Florida because its classes are limited to 20 or fewer students. Similarly, Natalie Tamburello, now a senior at Whitman College , was attracted by the school's modest student population of about 1,500. "I knew my professors would understand me better at a smaller school, because they would have a chance to get to know me," says Tamburello, who currently posts a 4.0 GPA in her psychology major and is considering going on to medical school.

2. Find a mentor in high school:

Even colleges that don't require a letter of recommendation will be impressed by a glowing report from a teacher or guidance counselor describing how you advocate for your educational needs, says McGreggor Crowley, associate director of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also a conference attendee.

3. Visit disability offices:

The difference between the promises on a school's website and the reality can be striking, asserts Vise, who says she spends a quarter of her work time visiting campuses. She looks for the location of a school's learning disability resource office -- centrally located or so far away you'll never stop there? -- and the number and helpfulness of the staffers.

4. Be aware of your learning style:

Shaywitz recommends talking to current undergrads or recent graduates to get a sense of how students are assessed. Helpful questions to ask include: Can meetings be set up one-on-one with a professor or teaching assistant to demonstrate your knowledge of a topic outside the high-stress classroom setting? Can students offer to write a report or do a project to demonstrate subject mastery?

Shaywitz notes that, even if you cannot find the answers to these questions in advance, schools that show themselves to have supportive environments in other ways often will have faculty members who are equally supportive and flexible.

5. Note the foreign language requirements:

Although a few dyslexics may not have trouble learning a foreign language, most are as stymied trying to read Italian as they are English, says Katherine Schantz, head of the Lab School, an independent institution serving elementary through high school students with learning disabilities in Washington and Baltimore. One option is to apply to colleges with either no foreign language requirement or a process for waiving it.

6. Nail the interview:

Meeting with an on-campus or alumni interviewer can help you showcase your accomplishments, Schantz says. "Time and again we have students who get into a competitive school because of their interview," she adds, explaining that interviewers are particularly impressed by students who are insightful about their learning disabilities and how they have compensated for them.

7. Decide whether to disclose:

The decision whether to discuss one's dyslexia on a college application must be handled individually, says Vise, who, along with Schantz, voices concern that some admissions officers still erroneously believe the disability tracks with intelligence. But when colleges have a history of supporting learning-disabled students, they say, applicants should feel comfortable raising it.

Megan Diffey was one applicant who wanted colleges to really understand who she is. Diffey wrote about her disability on her application essay. "The dedication and extra time I put into my work is a big part of my character," she says. The University of Central Florida apparently agreed. Not only did the school accept her, but it admitted Diffey to its highly competitive honors college.


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Colleges Step Up to Meet Dyslexia Challenge