Colleges Step Up to Meet Dyslexia Challenge

Schools expand efforts to assist talented students with a common disability.

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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.

[Read how learning disabilities may offer an edge in college admissions.]

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.

[Get tips from the U.S. News college test prep guide.]

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.

Clarified on 10/3/2011: An earlier version of this story did not fully identify McGreggor Crowley, associate director of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.