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
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
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.