Saturday, May 20, 2006

Flagging SAT Cheaters

Via Joanne Jacobs, a discussion at Slate of students who take the SAT untimed:

...And when test prep is not enough, there is another option with increasing appeal to well-off families: a diagnosis of dyslexia or attention deficit disorder that allows a student to take the SAT and other standardized tests untimed.

Given the often unseemly scramble for slots at top colleges, it's not surprising that the learning-disability diagnosis has become something of a racket. But until a few years ago, alert university admissions officers could check whether students might be exploiting an advantage: SAT scores resulting from untimed tests were marked, or "flagged." Then Mark Breimhorst, a Stanford student who was born without hands, sued the Educational Testing Service to stop the flagging, which he called a "scarlet letter" for disabled students. ETS settled rather than face a trial against a sympathetic plaintiff. In October 2003, the College Board stopped flagging the SAT, the GMAT (for business school entrance), and the GRE (for graduate study). The only holdouts are the medical- and law-schools boards, which continue to flag results from students given additional time on the MCAT and the LSAT, despite court challenges.

It is a racket to say the least. More accurately, it is a fraud. But the College Board, or whoever came up with the idea of extra time, is probably the one too blame. The fact is, for students who do not actually need extra time because they suffer from a physical barrier, the extra time policy simply makes not knowing the answer last longer.

A standardized test question is a simple thing. To answer it correctly you must identify what the question wants, decrypt the information provided, and apply a skill to deduce the answer. Success for only one of those steps can be improved by having extra time, and that is the process of decrypting the test. But practically, even that step won't be improved with extra time, as the test provides only as much information as is required to answer a question within one or two minutes. Extra time merely allows people to re-read the same, simple information over and over again. If they didn't understand the information to begin with, then re-reading it won't help.

One of the biggest problems with the extra time myth is that people with true learning disabilities aren't usually helped by extra time. Such students tend to give up on the test after a few minutes. What people with learning disabilities need is a different measure; a timed, multiple-choice test just won't show their talents, if they actually have any.

I have heard the standard objections to strict time limits over the last decade-plus of teaching test prep classes. I reject all of them.

To the objection that a score seems to improve when a student has extra time, I would point out the obvious: coincidence is not the same as causation. The people that report improvements usually improve only marginally (3 or 4 on the ACT, 30 or 40 on the SAT, GRE, or GMAT). They are also people who take measures between one test and the next, and these measures are more likely the extra time to cause such a score increase. It really doesn't take a lot to get such a score improvement. I've learned from my students that just attending my classes and listening is worth 20 points, even if they do none of the homework and do not actively participate. That is not to my credit; it simply exposes the fact that knowing a little about how the test works is enough to get you a few more correct answers, and that is enough for a marginal score improvement. And note that you can only see an improvement if you take the test twice, which allows for learning inbetween tests.

I would also add to the above that the people who most often claim that the extra time helps are the parents. I think what happens is that the parents "earn" the extra time by convincing a psychologist their child has a learning disability. The parents do not "earn" the actual knowledge the test taker gains between tests. Thus, the parents attribute causation to what they themselves have "earned", because it is what they are best able to value.

To the objection that extra time helps you read material, I would offer that people who need that much time to read either do not know what they reading for, or cannot read well enough to find what they need. As to the former, the extra time probably won't help them because they do not suffer from poor reading skills, but from ignorance about what the test wants them to do (the first step described above). As to the latter, reading ten times a sentence too complex for their understanding is no improvement on reading such a sentence twice. That student won't get the answer right, no matter how much time they get.

To the objection that the extra time helps someone deal with complex math problems, I would suggest that actually observing the content of the math problems proves this objection is unwarranted. The math is really quite simple even if you know only half of what the question requires. If a person has an idea of what to do, they can start in on the problem and come up with an answer within the time constraints. If a person does not know what to do, extra time won't help. The only people it may help are those who belabor their initial confusion, people who hem and haw over the numbers they see before finally, agonizingly reaching the realization that they had better do something with the item. These people are not aided by the extra time; they would have gotten the answer right if they had just started working right away. The extra time merely indulges indecision, which is silly because the right action is always to start work right away. Going back and changing course will take less time than staring at the problem and hoping the answer jumps out.

Finally, to the objection that the extra time calms a test taker so that he or she can perform better, I would say this: the right approach to any standardized test is to take a deep breath, acknowledge one's anxiety, and from the time the test starts to the time it is finished, ignore your feelings. Extra time does not help a test taker to do this; it merely extends the anxiety.

To the people who think extra time might help them, I would only say this. You will not do better on the test if you feel better, you will simply feel bad more slowly. If you nonetheless think that extra time will help you, then you have a choice to make. You can either defraud the College Board, or you can, for a period of four horus, think despite your feelings. Four hours is all that there is to a test. So think about it: you can be a Vulcan for a few hours, or you can be a cheater. Your call.

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