U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section
Standardized examinations and other high-stakes tests are gateways to educational and employment opportunities. Whether seeking admission to a high school, college, or graduate program, or attempting to obtain a professional license or certification for a trade, it is difficult to achieve such goals without sitting for some kind of standardized exam or high-stakes test. While many testing entities have made efforts to ensure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, the Department continues to receive questions and complaints relating to excessive and burdensome documentation demands, failures to provide needed testing accommodations, and failures to respond to requests for testing accommodations in a timely manner.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to fairly compete for and pursue such opportunities by requiring testing entities to offer exams in a manner accessible to persons with disabilities. When needed testing accommodations are provided, test-takers can demonstrate their true aptitude.
The Department of Justice (Department) published revised final regulations implementing the ADA for title II (State and local government services) and title III (public accommodations and commercial facilities) on September 15, 2010. These rules clarify and refine issues that have arisen over the past 20 years and contain new and updated requirements.
This publication provides technical assistance on testing accommodations for individuals with disabilities who take standardized exams and other high-stakes tests. It addresses the obligations of testing entities, which include private, state, or local government entities that offer exams related to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary (high school), postsecondary (college and graduate school), professional (law, medicine, etc.), or trade (cosmetology, electrician, etc.) purposes. Who is entitled to testing accommodations, what types of testing accommodations must be provided, and what documentation may be required of the person requesting testing accommodations are also discussed.
Exams administered by any private, state, or local government entity related to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes are covered by the ADA and testing accommodations, pursuant to the ADA, must be provided.1
Examples of covered exams include:
Testing accommodations are changes to the regular testing environment and auxiliary aids and services2 that allow individuals with disabilities to demonstrate their true aptitude or achievement level on standardized exams or other high-stakes tests.
Examples of the wide range of testing accommodations that may be required include:
Individuals with disabilities are eligible to receive necessary testing accommodations. Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as seeing, hearing, learning, reading, concentrating, or thinking) or a major bodily function (such as the neurological, endocrine, or digestive system). The determination of whether an individual has a disability generally should not demand extensive analysis and must be made without regard to any positive effects of measures such as medication, medical supplies or equipment, low-vision devices (other than ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics, hearing aids and cochlear implants, or mobility devices. However, negative effects, such as side effects of medication or burdens associated with following a particular treatment regimen, may be considered when determining whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
A substantial limitation of a major life activity may be based on the extent to which the impairment affects the condition, manner, or duration in which the individual performs the major life activity. To be “substantially limited” in a major life activity does not require that the person be unable to perform the activity. In determining whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity, it may be useful to consider, when compared to most people in the general population, the conditions under which the individual performs the activity or the manner in which the activity is performed. It may also be useful to consider the length of time an individual can perform a major life activity or the length of time it takes an individual to perform a major life activity, as compared to most people in the general population. For example:
A person with a history of academic success may still be a person with a disability who is entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA. A history of academic success does not mean that a person does not have a disability that requires testing accommodations. For example, someone with a learning disability may achieve a high level of academic success, but may nevertheless be substantially limited in one or more of the major life activities of reading, writing, speaking, or learning, because of the additional time or effort he or she must spend to read, write, speak, or learn compared to most people in the general population.
Testing entities must ensure that the test scores of individuals with disabilities accurately reflect the individual’s aptitude or achievement level or whatever skill the exam or test is intended to measure. A testing entity must administer its exam so that it accurately reflects an individual’s aptitude, achievement level, or the skill that the exam purports to measure, rather than the individual’s impairment (except where the impaired skill is one the exam purports to measure).3
All testing entities must adhere to the following principles regarding what may and may not be required when a person with a disability requests a testing accommodation.
Examples of types of documentation include:
Depending on the particular testing accommodation request and the nature of the disability, however, a testing entity may only need one or two of the above documents to determine the nature of the candidate’s disability and his or her need for the requested testing accommodation. If so, a testing entity should generally limit its request for documentation to those one or two items and should generally evaluate the testing accommodation request based on those limited documents without requiring further documentation.
A testing entity must respond in a timely manner to requests for testing accommodations so as to ensure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities. Testing entities should ensure that their process for reviewing and approving testing accommodations responds in time for applicants to register and prepare for the test.6 In addition, the process should provide applicants with a reasonable opportunity to respond to any requests for additional information from the testing entity, and still be able to take the test in the same testing cycle. Failure by a testing entity to act in a timely manner, coupled with seeking unnecessary documentation, could result in such an extended delay that it constitutes a denial of equal opportunity or equal treatment in an examination setting for persons with disabilities.
Testing entities should report accommodated scores in the same way they report scores generally. Testing entities must not decline to report scores for test-takers with disabilities receiving accommodations under the ADA.
Flagging policies that impede individuals with disabilities from fairly competing for and pursuing educational and employment opportunities are prohibited by the ADA. “Flagging” is the policy of annotating test scores or otherwise reporting scores in a manner that indicates the exam was taken with a testing accommodation. Flagging announces to anyone receiving the exam scores that the test-taker has a disability and suggests that the scores are not valid or deserved. Flagging also discourages test-takers with disabilities from exercising their right to testing accommodations under the ADA for fear of discrimination. Flagging must not be used to circumvent the requirement that testing entities provide testing accommodations for persons with disabilities and ensure that the test results for persons with disabilities reflect their abilities, not their disabilities.
To view model testing accommodation practices and for more information about the ADA, please visit our website or call our toll-free number:
For persons with disabilities, this publication is available in alternate formats.
Duplication of this document is encouraged.
1 This document does not address how the requirements or protections, as applicable, of Title II of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the assessment provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and their implementing regulations, apply to, or interact with, the administration of state-wide and district-wide assessments to students with disabilities conducted by public educational entities.
2 See 28 C.F.R. §§ 36.303(b), 36.309(b)(3) (providing non-exhaustive lists of auxiliary aids and services).
3 Under Section 309 of the ADA, any person (including both public and private entities) that offers examinations related to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes must offer such examinations “in a place and manner accessible to persons with disabilities or offer alternative accessible arrangements for such individuals.” 42 U.S.C. § 12189. Under regulations implementing this ADA provision, any private entity that offers such examinations must “assure that the examination is selected and administered so as to best ensure that, when the examination is administered to an individual with a disability that impairs sensory, manual, or speaking skills, the examination results accurately reflect the individual´s aptitude or achievement level or whatever other factor the examination purports to measure, rather than reflecting the individual´s impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills (except where those skills are the factors that the examination purports to measure).” 28 C.F.R. § 36.309. Likewise, under regulations implementing title II of the ADA, public entities offering examinations must ensure that their exams do not provide qualified persons with disabilities with aids, benefits, or services that are not as effective in affording equal opportunity to obtain the same result, to gain the same benefit, or to reach the same level of achievement as that provided to others, 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(1)(iii), and may not administer a licensing or certification program in a manner that subjects qualified individuals with disabilities to discrimination on the basis of disability. 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(6). Both the title II and title III regulations also require public and private testing entities to provide modifications and auxiliary aids and services for individuals with disabilities unless the entity can demonstrate an applicable defense. 28 C.F.R. §§ 35.130(b)(7), 35.160(b), 35.164; 28 C.F.R. §§ 36.309(b)(1)(iv-vi), (b)(2), 36.309(b)(3).
4 An IEP contains the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services provided to an eligible student with a disability under Part B of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. and 34 C.F.R. part 300.
5 A Section 504 Plan could contain the regular or special education and related aids and services provided pursuant to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 and 34 C.F.R. part 104.
6 Testing entities must offer examinations to individuals with disabilities in as timely a manner as offered to others and should not impose earlier registration deadlines on those seeking testing accommodations.