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Last Updated: 02/01/2018


Article of Interest - Testing

Testing For Aptitude, Not For Speed

by Howard Gardner, New York Times, July 18, 2002

Changes in educational policy invariably evoke strong and contrary reactions. The College Board's announcement this week that it will no longer tell colleges and universities which students have been given extra time to complete the SAT is no exception. Some see this decision, which came as a result of a legal settlement with a student who had a physical disability, as fair and overdue. Others see it as unfairly handicapping those students who do not request or receive such accommodations and say it will deprive admissions officers of pertinent information.

The College Board's decision is right. But I question whether there is any rationale for timing such tests at all.

Underlying the contrasting reactions are two opposing views. The original thinking behind the SAT is that individuals possess varying scholastic aptitudes. The SAT is designed to discover those who've got the intellectual goods and merit a college education.

For the last 50 years, the test has culled those individuals who are skilled in selecting the correct response from four or five choices. The questions sample verbal skills (vocabulary, reading and understanding short passages, analogies) and mathematical ability (basic arithmetic, algebra and geometry). Speed is of the essence; the test-taker should be able to answer about one question a minute. Those who are familiar with these types of questions, can answer quickly and are able to shift rapidly from one question type to another are at a distinct advantage. Those who believe the timed format is central to the test resist efforts to give any group of students an exemption.

Those with a contrasting view believe that the point of the test is to see whether a person can ultimately provide a correct answer from scratch or from multiple choices. Therefore, if students are revealed by screening to have any kind of disability, they ought to be provided with appropriate aid. Those who are blind get a version in braille; those who are myopic get large print; those who have a good reason for needing more time should get it.

But why give a time exemption only to those who can make a case that they need one? Why not let anyone who wants extra time (or, for that matter, braille or large print) have it, no questions asked? My own guess is that most people would not take much extra time, but the decision would be theirs, not that of a screening body.

Nothing of consequence would be lost by getting rid of timed tests by the College Board or, indeed, by universities in general. Few tasks in life and very few tasks in scholarship actually depend on being able to read passages or solve math problems rapidly. As a teacher, I want my students to read, write and think well; I don't care how much time they spend on their assignments. For those few jobs where speed is important, timed tests may be useful. But getting into college, or doing satisfactorily once there, is not in that category.

Indeed, by eliminating the timed component, the College Board would signal that background knowledge, seriousness of purpose and effort not speed and glibness are the essentials of good scholarship. What matters is not what you have at the starting point, but whether and how well you finish.

And if, the day after tomorrow, students were allowed to bring along dictionaries, or even to have access to the Web, so much the better. Such a change would far more accurately duplicate the conditions under which serious individuals at any level of expertise actually do their work.


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