NOTE: This story was reported by the Beacon Project, a student journalism initiative supported by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to report on USC. It is independent of the university’s administration.
In Los Angeles County’s richest communities, students have a little-known but powerful advantage over their peers in the county’s poorest communities. In affluent enclaves, including Pacific Palisades, Palos Verdes, and Santa Monica, students are up to 77 times as likely to receive a federal disability designation that entitles them to extra help in the classroom. And that designation virtually ensures them an assist in the cutthroat competition to get into college: extra time to take the critical SAT and ACT exams.
Designed to help those who struggle with dyslexia, ADHD, or other disabilities, a “504” designation gives students a wide range of benefits and accommodations at school, from tutoring to behavior-management counseling. Having a 504 can level the playing field for children with learning disabilities, helping them reap the full benefits of education.
But an exclusive analysis of data from the federal Department of Education shows that in Los Angeles County, the 504 designation has tilted the playing field in favor of the wealthy. It suggests that some disabled students in poor areas — such as El Monte, San Gabriel, and South Los Angeles — may not be getting the help they need to learn properly, potentially depriving them of a decent high school education, let alone the chance to get into college.
In addition, the analysis raises the question of whether wealthy families are gaming the system to get their children designated as disabled when they don’t actually have a disability. That’s what federal prosecutors say happened in the nationwide college admissions scandal that rocked the University of Southern California and other colleges, including Stanford and University of California at Los Angeles. Wealthy parents were accused of paying to get their children fraudulently diagnosed with conditions that would qualify them for extended time on the SAT and ACT — sometimes an entire additional day.
In L.A. County, 504 disparities between individual high schools can be drastic.
Palisades Charter High School, sandwiched between the Riviera Country Club and the Getty Villa, features an aptly named “Stadium by the Sea” and classrooms within walking distance of the beach. While “Pali High” draws students from across the county, fewer than 1.5% of its students struggle with English proficiency, fewer than 30% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, and more than half are white. The community of Pacific Palisades features some of the most expensive real estate in Los Angeles and a median home value of $3 million, almost five times the median in L.A. County. Pali High has the county’s highest rate of 504s of any regular four-year public high school, according to federal data.
About 30 miles to the east, near the intersection of the 10 and 605 freeways, more than 95% of the students at El Monte High School qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, almost 85% are Latino or Hispanic, and more than a quarter have limited proficiency in English. Located in the working-class city of El Monte, where the poverty rate is nearly double what it is nationally. In the analysis, the school has the lowest rate of 504s in L.A. County.
At Palisades Charter, students are more than 77 times as likely to enjoy the benefits of 504 than those at El Monte. One in 12 Pali High students — more than 8.5% — has a 504, whereas at El Monte, it’s fewer than one in 900 students, or just 0.11%.
For parents of means, taking advantage of a 504 is a no-brainer. Palisades Charter’s website features a page on how to apply for a 504. No such page exists on the website for El Monte High — but there is a page on how to apply for citizenship and benefits for DACA, the federal program for so-called “dreamers,” immigrants who arrived in the US as children. In poor or working-class families, parents might not even be aware of the 504, let alone have the time, language skills, or ability to work the system to secure one.
“It is one of the great unfairnesses of our system that the access to accommodations is dependent upon the wealth of the school district,” said Mark Sklarow, the former dean of the now-defunct Penn Center Academy in Philadelphia, where two-thirds of the student population was below poverty level during his time there. He now runs the Independent Educational Consulting Association, which represents thousands of consultants who help high school students apply to college.
Nationwide, students from wealthy neighborhoods are far more likely to receive a 504 than their peers in poor areas, according to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which also analyzed Department of Education data. This article is the first to analyze the disparity in Los Angeles County.
One anomaly: In the four Los Angeles area schools with the highest rates of 504s — Palisades Charter High, Palos Verdes High, Agoura High, and Mira Costa High — a striking majority of students with the disability designation were female. In three of the schools, girls were more than twice as likely to have a 504 as boys. This fact stumped experts, who said that nationally, boys and young men are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities. In Los Angeles County overall, the gender breakdown for 504s is almost 58% male.
Interviews with local school officials suggest many causes for the striking disparity between rich and poor.
“Unless a parent requests a 504 plan, we do not put a student on a 504 plan,” said El Monte High principal Robin Torres. But she said that teachers at the school provide the same special assistance that a 504 would require “without having a 504 plan in place, if that makes sense. We're doing those accommodations, they're assisting the kids, they're doing everything that a 504 plan would do.” She added that “kids feel like they’re labeled if they’ve got a 504 plan” and that “our families and our students don't want to be labeled.”
At San Gabriel High, which also has low 504 rates, students come to school with challenges ranging from limited proficiency in English to homelessness, said Toby Gilbert, a spokesperson for San Gabriel High’s district, Alhambra Unified. The school provides tutoring and “special mentoring,” she said, and noted that Newsweek named the high school as one of the best for low-income students, citing its 98.5% graduation rate. While teachers seek out students who may need a 504, she said that very few parents request one. They may not know that a medical diagnosis exists for their child’s learning issues or that the school offers special help for children with disabilities. Even if they do, she said, many parents “don't have money or time to go to a doctor” to get their child diagnosed.
In a sharp contrast, parents at Palisades Charter, with the highest rate of 504s in the county, “are proactive,” said assistant principal Mary Bush. “They come in with psychoeducational assessments, private ones,” she said. The school doesn’t give a 504 “unless we’ve established a need,” she said, but Pali High parents, many of whom are highly educated, often bring “letters from clinicians, therapists, and so they come in with documentation.”
And then there are the college entrance exams. Having a 504 all but guarantees getting extra time on the SAT and ACT — and the desire for extra time, Bush said, is a “pretty big” driver of the school’s high 504 rate.
At Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, a spokesperson said she was unaware of the data so couldn’t comment on why Santa Monica High School such a high percentage of 504s. She said her district is “dedicated to providing all students who qualify with the necessary accommodations to have a successful school career,” and provided the district’s 504 policy. A spokesperson for Las Virgenes Unified School District said that the number of 504s at Agoura High School is “in line proportionally” with the district’s other secondary schools.
Meantime, in the heart of L.A., Santee Education Complex and Elizabeth Learning Center are overseen by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Asked to comment on why those schools have such low 504 rates, a district official said that the issue was “far too complex for simple straightforward answers.”
None of the other top or bottom five schools analyzed, or their districts, responded to requests for comment. Each school reports how many 504s it has to the Department of Education, and some schools might not report their numbers accurately.
To get a 504, named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, students must have a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” them, according to federal guidelines. Any school that receives federal funds must provide 504-qualified students with individually tailored services, which could include an in-class note-taker or modified textbooks.
For common disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder or anxiety, students typically receive a diagnosis by a psychologist. Wealthy parents often arrange and pay thousands of dollars for psychological tests that lead to these diagnoses. Such tests are often not covered by insurance, according to three psychologists interviewed for this story, so poor students are more likely to rely on overburdened school faculty and staff, who are supposed to identify and assist children with disabilities. In practice, this can mean waiting for the school to notice shortcomings or battling through the bureaucracy of the public school system to get an evaluation — a longer and more difficult process than paying for private psychological testing.
But when a child gets a 504, it can make all the difference. Catherine Vangarderin said she was diagnosed early with dyslexia, and starting in kindergarten she had “extra reading classes, extra math classes, and I had a writing goal.” In addition to this, Vagarderin regularly met with a special ed teacher, who was designated as her “advocate.” Vangarderin, who will attend Hartwick College in upstate New York this fall, said her 504 “definitely helped.” But she cautioned that the designation is “very easy to get, actually, for people who don’t need it.”
Interviews with parents, educators, and others suggest that some wealthy families are gaming the system. They “will go fishing for unscrupulous psychologists or schools to get John or Jane an accommodation because they want it, but maybe not because they need it,” said Craig Meister, a Baltimore-based educational consultant who previously worked in undergraduate admissions at the University of Baltimore and as a high school guidance counselor.
The data can’t tease out which, if any, diagnoses aren’t warranted. But between the 2000-2001 and 2013-2014 school years, the proportion of students receiving a 504 across the United States has more than doubled, from 0.7% to 1.8%, according to the most recent national estimates released by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
At Palisades Charter, the rise has been far more dramatic. In 2011, 3.3% of students there had a 504, data shows. In 2013, the figure had risen to 6.5%, and by 2015, the most recent year with data available, more than 8.5% of students were getting a 504 plan. Every year over the last decade, the number has gone up.
But at El Monte High, which has about 1,800 students, the number with a 504 has fluctuated between two and zero.
Experts believe various factors are driving the increase. Sklarow speculates that schools may have hired more staff who are equipped to help disabled students, and therefore have identified and enrolled more students with special needs.
ACT Inc. and the College Board, which owns the SAT, say they have not made significant changes in at least a decade as to how they evaluate whether students qualify for extra time, or other accommodations such as extra breaks or use of a computer to write essays. But there is a perception of a change, a perception that could be driving part of the rise in 504s.
Bush, the assistant principal of Palisades Charter, said the SAT and ACT have “put more of the onus on the school” to “verify” that it has actually been providing students with special services. Sklarow made the same point, saying that “you could no longer be in regular classes with no accommodations, but then suddenly ask for special treatment for the SATs or ACTs.”
While private school data is not available, there is evidence the increase has often been just as dramatic. In the college admissions scandal, most of the families who allegedly paid to secure a disability diagnosis sent their children to private schools, where pressure to ace the SAT and ACT can be particularly intense.
In the college bribery scheme, court documents suggest that mastermind William “Rick” Singer had at least one psychologist who would give students a diagnosis necessary to get extra test time and other disability accommodations. In one case, a client of Singer’s even traveled with his daughter across the country from Connecticut to Los Angeles to meet with the psychologist.
In a recorded conversation, Singer told Gordon Caplan, one of the parents who has pleaded guilty in the admissions scandal, that obtaining extended time on entrance exams is common practice — at least among the affluent. In a transcript of a recorded conversation filed in federal court, he told Caplan that “all the wealthy families” figured out that by getting their children designated as having a learning disability, they could get extra time and “do better on the test.” He added that “most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.”
Singer emphasized the need for Caplan’s daughter to deliberately underperform on her psychological evaluation. “I also need to tell [your daughter] when she gets tested to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is. The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright,” Singer said, according to a federal court transcript of the conversation. Experts said that a legitimate psychological exam, which takes multiple days to complete, would be hard for a student to fake, and Caplan has insisted that his daughter knew nothing of his efforts to gain her extra time on her college entrance exam.
Singer not only helped parents secure extra time on the college admission exams, prosecutors say, but in some cases he also arranged for an accomplice to actually take the exam in place of a student. Such a scheme is clearly an illegal extreme.
But an entire industry has sprung up to help parents — especially wealthy ones — navigate the process to secure special treatment for their children. A Google search brings up dozens of results and firms boasting they can get students extra time on tests.
“‘Small’ accommodations, such as extended time, a distraction-free room, or a short break can get you on a level playing field for exams,” reads the website for Daniel Winarick, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “Have you have been running out of time on practice tests or performing much better in less stressful situations? If so, consider getting an evaluation.”
The site also notes that, depending on the results of the evaluation, students can qualify for a range of accommodations that might also include “having a reader, permission to use a computer, a scribe, breaks, or a quiet room.”
In an interview, Winarick called those lines “solicity.” Asked if he meant they were a solicitation, he said yes. He said the children he has diagnosed all had legitimate disabilities.
Winarick charges $2,500 to $4,500 for a psychological test to see if a student needs extra time on college entrance exams. Such tests, he said, are rigorous and time-consuming — and aren’t enough by themselves. “To get extended time,” he said, “there needs to be some history of academic problems.” He said the tests form a small piece of his overall business, and he typically performs only two or three a year.
“I do not believe that the SAT or ACT are doing nearly as good of a job at being gatekeepers as they used to,” said Meister, the college consultant.
A spokesperson for the ACT told the Beacon Project that “virtually all students” who receive extra time to take the standardized test “have a history of receiving similar accommodations in school.” Further, the ACT requires documentation proving the student received a medical diagnosis by a “qualified professional diagnostician,” when requesting extended time, said Edward Colby, the ACT’s spokesperson. Even with that requirement, more than 90% of requests are granted, Colby said.
About 4% of all students taking the SAT receive extra time, up from about 2% in 2002, according to Jerome White, a spokesperson for The College Board, which administers the test. White said the company approves 94% of all accommodation requests. While not an absolute guarantee, a 504 is the next best thing: “a vast majority” of students receiving 504 accommodations at their school will be “automatically approved” for similar accommodations on the SAT, White said.
While high schools are a crucial gatekeeper to 504 designations, wealthy parents can “hire advocates and attorneys,” said Bush of Palisades Charter High. Poor parents “don’t have that luxury,” she added. While the involvement of attorneys in these matters is rare, Bush said, she has seen cases in which attorneys have filed complaints with the district on behalf of students who were denied 504s.
Interviews with affluent parents suggest that many are seeking 504s to give their children an edge in college admissions. A parent of a child at a wealthy private high school in West Los Angeles described a moment of anguish when his son pointed out his friends were getting extra time to take tests that would help them get accepted into Ivy League and other exclusive schools — and insisted that he should get extra time, too.
The father, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to embarrass his child, said his son did not end up seeking extra time but described the pervasiveness of the practice as a “dirty little secret” among private school parents.
Steven Mercer, a former USC admissions officer and college consultant based in Southern California, recalled one student who “played by the rules.” But she felt “everyone else was gaining an advantage over her. She didn’t aggressively do the same and now she has this twinge of regret.” He said she told him, “I feel like I’m a sucker.”
About the data analysis: To analyze the percentage of students receiving a 504 designation in Los Angeles County high schools, we turned to with the federal Department of Education’s 2015-2016 public use data.
We reviewed only schools located in Los Angeles County, America’s most populous county. We further limited our analysis to 4-year, public high schools with at least 250 students. We excluded special education and alternative schools, and schools with no 504 students.
Then we determined which of these high schools had the highest and lowest percentages of 504 students, as reported in the story.
Aaron Mendelson contributed the data analysis for this story.
Headline change made at 2:10 p.m., August 29, 2019: A previous version of this story’s headline was “LA’s rich kids are more likely than poor kids to take advantage of this SAT loophole.”