In Newton, the everyday version of “Varsity Blues” scandal

One of every three students at high school get special allowance for SAT and ACT tests

NEVER MIND BRIBING the college tennis coach and all its potential downsides — like a felony conviction and jail time. It turns out going to Newton North High School also sets up students for an extra edge in the college admission race, with the added bonus of being perfectly legal.

There were plenty of jaw-dropping moments as details of the “Varsity Blues” college admission scandal unfolded two months ago. The half-million-dollar payments by Hollywood stars and hedge fund honchos to secure a slot for their son or daughter at USC or another college. The SAT test proctors who were in on the scam and changed answers on tests to boost the scores of the children of the uber rich and connected.

But perhaps the most stunning moment came unintentionally when US Attorney Andrew Lelling announced the indictments that day in Boston.

“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, And I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either,” Lelling said.

As much as the case has blown the lid off the incredible lengths some of those with power and privilege will go to secure unwarranted — and illicit — advantages for their children, by isolating those whose efforts extended to criminal behavior, Lelling’s comment served well the much broader swath of well-off American families who enjoy all sorts of advantages in a college admission game touted as a pure meritocracy.

Lelling’s comment seemed laughable because it struck so many as obviously untrue: In countless ways there is a separate college admission system for the wealthy. It’s just that most well-off parents lack the deep pockets, nerve, and amoral sense of complete entitlement that led Felicity Huffman and others to literally buy their child’s way into a school.

But from extra tutoring to boost grades to summer internships and volunteer experiences that round out a student’s profile when applying for college, the children of better-off families enjoy all sorts of advantages over their poorer peers in applying to colleges.

Now add to that another entry: Extra time to take the SAT or ACT tests that can be the critical determinant of whether a high school student gets into a competitive college.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, across the country, students in affluent communities are far more likely than those in lower-income districts to obtain special allowances giving them extra time for test-taking, including for the crucial SAT and ACT exams used for college admissions.

The most egregious example cited in the Journal story, which looked at data from 9,000 US schools? Newton North High School, where an eye-popping one of every three students is eligible for extra test time.

That designation comes either via an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the formal term for special education services for students with learning disabilities, or a separate category known as a 504 designation, based on a 1973 federal law. The number of students with 504 designations nationally has tripled from 2000 to 2016, the Journal reports. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has seen a huge surge during this time in requests for special test accommodations, nearly all of which are granted.

Schools set their own standard for making a 504 designation. Sometimes it based only on a request from a parent or a teacher. “Typically,” the article says, a medical professional must make an assessment and conclude that a student suffers from “some condition such as anxiety or attention problems.”

In the Los Angeles area, says the article, the outside evaluation needed for the designation can cost $5,000 to $10,000.

Whatever the specific rules are in each district, families in better-off communities are obtaining the designation at far higher rates than those in poorer communities. The result: Students who already enjoy all the advantages of their family background get an extra thumb on the scale with more time than poorer kids to complete the college admission tests.

Nationally, an average of 4.2 percent of students in wealthier districts have 504 designations, compared with just 1.6 percent of students in poorer districts.

That makes the 33 percent figure at Newton North (a combination of its 22 percent special ed rate and those with 504 designations) an extreme outlier even among affluent high schools.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The district’s superintendent, David Fleishman, concedes a point that seems glaringly obvious. “Do I think that more than 30 percent of our students have a disability?” he said. “No. We have a history of over-identification [as learning-challenged] that is certainly an issue in the district.”

The article says Newton is working to reduce the number, but has no specifics on how.