504 Plans Common Among Affluent Students

January 1, 2020

The rate at which Rio Americano students receive accommodations for conditions like ADHD, depression and anxiety etc. has increased by almost ten-fold in the past decade. 

And while the rate at which students get 504 plans, which provide things like extra time on tests or extended deadlines on assignments has risen sharply nationwide, students at more affluent schools like Rio are far more likely to get the designation than those at high-poverty schools.

At Rio in 2009 only 0.3 percent of students had a 504 plan, according to data compiled by the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. That percentage grew to 3.6 in 2015, the last year for which federal data is available. Currently, about 8.2 percent of students here have a 504 plan, according to San Juan Unified School District data.

In contrast, at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks an estimated 4.3 percent of students currently have 504 plans, up from 2.2 percent in 2015 and less than 1 percent in 2009.

Although the schools have similar numbers of students, the big difference between them is that at Rio 20.9 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch; at Del Campo that number is 44.4 percent, according to federal data from 2015. Free and reduced price lunch eligibility is often used as a marker for the number of lower-income students at a school.  

The contrast can be even more stark at other schools in the Sacramento area. In 2015, 6.3 percent of Davis High School students had 504 (up from less than 1 percent percent in 2009), while 14.8 percent of students were eligible for free/reduced price lunch. At Hiram Johnson in Sacramento, the numbers were 0.3 percent for 504s and 87.8 for free/reduced price lunch. 

These numbers reflect a national trend that was reported in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal last summer. 

This inquiry followed the accusation that William Singer, a consultant at the epicenter of the college admissions scandal was using 504 accommodations as a ploy to aid students in getting extra test-taking time. Singer, who lives near the school, once offered college counseling to Rio students, although none were involved in the admissions cheating scandal.

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Critics see abuse

Critics say that while 504 plans are useful for students with disabilities, more affluent parents may take advantage of the accommodations the plan offers to give their child an edge. On the other hand, parents at poorer schools may not be aware that their children can get legally mandated help for legitimate learning disabilities.       

 Kerry Barlow, who teaches emotionally distubred students at Rio and is familiar with special education law, thinks too many parents abuse the system. 

504s are grotesquely overprescribed in upper class schools and it’s just as bad that they are underprescribed at less fortunate schools,” said Barlow. “But if a student has good teachers then a 504 really isn’t that needed because they take care of all of those issues.”

504s are grotesquely overprescribed in upper class schools and it’s just as bad that they are underprescribed at less fortunate schools.”

— Kerry Barlow

As more students get 504s, the plans may become less useful in classrooms because that reduces what teachers can do for individual students, Barlow said. For example, only so many students can be given preferential seating in the front row.

But 504s may allow a student to get extra time on class exams and the SAT and ACT, which could boost their chance of getting into a top college.

According to a 2005 study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amerherst, “extended time tended to improve the performance of all students, although students with disabilities tended exhibit relatively greater score gains.” 

Students with 504s who were interviewed by the Mirada said the extra time helps offset disabilities, while critics say children with affluent parents are seeking an advantage. 

“504s also give students extra time on tests and that becomes a crucial element in the SAT and for some families that may be what this is all about,” said Barlow.

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What a 504 is

The process of getting a 504 is relatively easy. The parent has to file a formal request with the school’s 504 coordinator, who should respond to the request within a matter of days to organize a student evaluation.

According to the US Department of Education, any student that has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and has a record of such an impairment, qualifies for a 504. Reasons for getting a 504 include ADHD, anxiety disorders, and reading or math disabilities. 

Accommodations can include longer test times, breaks during class, preferential seating, as well as many other possibilities, depending on the student’s impairment. 

Some students who have a 504 plan benefit from it and need it for genuine reasons.

“For me, having a 504 is really beneficial in helping when I’m stressed out or having a lot of anxiety,” said anonymous. “I can go to the counselor’s office to calm down and take a break. Also if I’m anxious about a test I can ask to take it another day, and I also had a really bad concussion so it takes me a little extra time to read which makes it helpful having extra time on tests.”

These types of accommodations are mandated by federal law so that students can learn without being separated from their classmates.

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The Influence of Affluence

Critics say that while 504 plans may be legitimate, it is not more likely that students with more affluent parents would have a greater need for the plans. 

Because of this new discovery of 504s being used in a higher dosage at schools in richer districts, they’ve been sometimes ridiculed as being used to give those already with an upper hand due to wealth yet another advantage over those less fortunate than them.

The study from the Times brought the disparities of districts across the country into view. The paper reported that at high schools in districts in the top 1 percent of parent income 5.8 percent of students held a 504, compared to the national average of 2.7 percent.

An analysis by the Mirada of data from local districts and the U.S. Department of Education, showed that individual schools within the San Juan Unified School District and in the Sacramento area follow that trend.

Many parents of those who have 504s have time to look into methods to gain the knowledge and find resources to get their students ahead. These methods include having the help from private college counselors and private therapists who may push for accommodations.

Rio counselor Heather Jensen said that 504 plans may originate from parents who recognize that their child is struggling or not meeting educational expectations and who seek professional help. Lower income families may lack to time, money or knowledge to act in the same way.

“Even having the money to pay for a therapist outside, most therapists will bring up a 504 , so it again comes back to the money,” Jensen said. “The people who don’t have the money to go to doctors and they aren’t focused enough to bring up a plan like this, (for them) it’s more of an in and out interaction.”

Less well-off parents may also want to avoid perceived stigma of a learning disability designation, while better off parents recognize the advantage. 

“These rich parents are sadly like, take the title it’s going to boost you up, but other parents feel like this kind of title is going to stick to you and colleges won’t like it,” said Jensen. “And the richer group don’t ever want the college to know they have a 504, but they want it ahead of time for testing and other things of that nature.”

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Numbers Problems

Students at schools with higher poverty rates oftentimes would benefit more from the 504 due to factors like environmental health issues.

But an analysis of data across the San Juan district shows schools with higher poverty rates tend to have fewer numbers of students with 504 plans. 

Throughout all of the high schools in the district, there are approximately 575 504 plans being used for students. 

Lower-income high schools like Encina with 36 plans and approximately 949 students and San Juan with 17 plans and approximately 596 students have just 53 plans combined, whereas a more affluent school, such as Rio Americano has about 160 plans among approximately 1950 students.

“More of (low-income students) should be using a 504,” said Barlow. “If they’re not eligible for Special Ed there are going to be more other small issues, and it’s generally going to be more prevalent in those communities. The parents don’t know about it, they aren’t educated on that.” 

Education experts contend that the lack of knowledge provided to these lower-income students and their families only fuels the cycle of them lagging behind the students much more fortunate than they are. And, they say, this cycle will continue until the gap is addressed and taken care of.

504s are meant to even the playing field with kids who have perceived disabilities but are not eligible for special education,” Barlow said. “And I’m not sure if this has been something that levels the playing fields at all.”

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