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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 06/12/2010

Stop timing the ACT and SAT

By Valerie Strauss

Today, tens of thousands of students across the country are sitting for hours taking the ACT college admissions test, just one week after many sat for hours taking the SAT.

ACT test takers sit to complete an English section for 45 minutes; math, 60 minutes; reading and science, 35 minutes each; and an essay, 30 minutes. That’s a total of 205 minutes. Students with special needs and who are granted extended time will sit for more than five hours.

Those taking the SAT
sit for 3 hours 45 minutes to complete a 25-minute essay, six 25-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing), two 20-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing) and a 10-minute multiple-choice writing section.

Why, exactly, are these tests timed the way they are? Why, for example, do students have exactly 60 minutes to take the ACT math section but 25 minutes to write an SAT essay?

It’s not because extensive research has shown that subjecting students to exactly this amount of time to complete these academic problems reveals something important about a teenager.

It’s because the entities behind the tests, ACT Inc., and the College Board, say so. The big thinking is that high school students need to be tested under pressure to see how they will fare in the pressure-filled environments in college. The other problems cited is the problem of securing and paying proctors and test sites for unspecified amounts of time.

Let’s assume for a minute that teenagers getting ready for college have not already been subjected to a pile of timed standardized tests and been forced to show what they know in an arbitrary amount of time (which, as we know, is not true; students today take high-stakes standardized tests ad nauseam.)

Timing the SAT and the ACT would make sense if the tests were highly predictive of success in college, which they aren’t, and if a single test could actually show how well a student works under pressure, which it can’t.

Oh, also if every single student who is a slow processor, or dyslexic, or dealing with other problems that could impact their ability to take the test in the scheduled time, were granted extra time, but they aren’t.

The idea is not original with me.

FairTest, the non-profit National Center for Fair and Open testing, has been screaming aobut this for many years.

Howard Garner, the famed Harvard University educator, made the case in 2002 about eliminating SAT time constraints in the New York Times:

“Few tasks in life--and very few tasks in scholarship--actually depend on being able to read passages or solve math problems rapidly....IIndeed, 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. And if, in the future, students were allowed to bring 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."

In 2006, Mark Franek, dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia made another argument about eliminating the time constraints, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

He pointed out that it is unfair that students with the resources to get an expensive diagnosis permits them extra time on these tests have an unfair advantage over students who need extra time but can’t get it.

On its website the College Board says on page for counselors and other professionals helping students:

“Please keep in mind that a student’s documentation must demonstrate not only that he or she has a disability, but also that the student requires the accommodation being requested. Therefore, a student who requests extended time should have documentation that demonstrates difficulty taking tests under timed conditions. In most cases, the documentation should include scores from both timed and extended/untimed tests, to demonstrate any differences caused by the timed conditions.”

So kids have to get a diagnosis first, which can cost several thousand dollars, and then have someone at their school who has enough time to assemble their documents, even though many high school counselors are charged with handling hundreds of students a year.

While a lot has been made in recent years about kids getting extra who don’ really need it, the people to worry about are the ones who go through school with a disability that hasn’t been diagnosed and addressed, and who are forced to take these tests without any accommodations because nobody knows they need it.

It is way past time to eliminate the time limits on these tests.

If a student can get through quickly, let them leave, which they are not now allowed to do. If a teen needs more time on one section and not on another, they should be allowed to have it.

And if someone wants to sit there all day to complete the test, why not let them?

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 12, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  act, college admissions tests, college board and extended time, extended time on act, extended time on sat, fairtest and sat, how long is the act?, how long is the sat?, how to get extended time, howard gardner and sat, sat, sat and act, time limits on act, time limits on sat, timing the sat, which test is longer  
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Cheating would be much more difficult to manage if everyone were allowed to work at their own speed. There'd have to be more stringent security, which would drive up costs.

I would rather see the SAT left alone--for the most part, their time limits are fine. A minimal prep, something that could be done in any high school, cheaply, would teach kids how to write an essay in the time frame.

The ACT is a whole nother story. Its timing is absolutely brutal, particularly the reading and science reasoning. But the solution here is to change the time limits. They should cut the English time from 45 to 35 minutes, as you really don't need 9 minutes per passage. They should take that 10 minutes and add it to the science section, and add another 10 minutes to the reading section.

Another possibility for the ACT is to have a "short" test and a "long" test, where students could sign up for one or the other.

It's an important fix. In all respects, the ACT is now a better test than the ACT, and is much better for low to mid achievers. However, the timing is simply impossible for the unprepared to deal with. Every time the ACT comes out with its pompous declarations about "college readiness", I wonder why no one points out how impossible it is to determine anything about the lower scores, given the brutal time requirements.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | June 13, 2010 12:14 AM | Report abuse

Remember a test is just a test and not something that gives a complete picture of a person. I know we want a test to give us an insight into who should be an elite individual and assume all the positions at our exclusive universities but these tests were never designed for that purpose. In fact they were designed to do quite the opposite and now have been abused and manipulated by the same kind of folks who have played havoc on other institutions because we seem to think capitalism needs no regulation.

Posted by: dmyers412 | June 13, 2010 4:12 AM | Report abuse

Is it just me or does it seem like these testing institutes have been given way too much power and influence?

Posted by: MisterRog | June 13, 2010 6:36 AM | Report abuse

The education world seems hellbent on finding some way to label everyone equally superior. To what end, I can only guess.

Human abilities, with or without training, appear as the familiar bell curves. Other human attributes, such as height, do so as well.

You may have noticed that the NBA is populated by REALLY tall people. Suppose that everyone on earth suddenly became one foot taller. Would there suddenly be more NBA players? No, pretty much the same players would be playing.

Elite universities like MIT and Harvard pick and choose from the extreme end of the academically inclined bell curve. Nothing will change because we find some way to get more average students "superior" scores on SATs or ACTs. I would have thought that anyone who'd ever pass a math class would understand this.

As for the various assertions that such tests don't prove anything, there is evidence to the contrary. In the SUNY (State University of New York) systems some schools opted not to use the standardized tests for admission. These schools saw a subsequent rise in the number of dropouts as well as an increase in the time to obtain a degree This suggests that without a standardized test these schools were admitting students who were not academically inclined (having been a teachers and watching all the grade inflation and cheating I'm not surprised).

I'll also say that I once proctored an SAT exam. I couldn't help noticing that this was about the only time in these kids' lives that called for them to concentrate and remain quiet for several straight hours. That in itself is a filter for serious college work.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 13, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Have there been any studies as to the amount of time students with full scholarships take to get a degree? Do some students take five years to get a degree because they learn slowly or because they have to work to earn money and can't take more courses or study long hours?

And what's wrong with taking 5 years to get a degree? For that matter, if a student wants to take one course a term for his entire life, isn't that his business? Don't we tell studens that education is a life-long process and you're never too old to learn?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 13, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Here's another standardized test for y'all to consider: The MCAT, or medical college admissions test. Prior to the existence of a, gasp, standardized test dropout rates at medical colleges were pretty high. The development of standardized admissions tests lowered dropout rates.

Now, you may say that whether you drop out or not is "your business". But if you took the slot of someone who was destined not to drop out then you've done a great injustice to not only that person but to many other whose lives he/she would have touched.

I find it ironic that you call yourself "sideswiththekids" since you don't seem to see that you're shifting the admission problems of one student onto another and little else.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 13, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

As a test prep coach and college consultant, I could not agree with you more that timing these tests is ridiculous. In the more than twenty years I have worked with students, I have never had one who didn't feel pressure because of the timing. Students complete their work in different time frames and if one takes an hour to complete an assignment and another takes two, who cares? I have talked with people at both the College Board and the ACT and suggested that timing be discussed at their next meeting. I doubt, however, that anything will change.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | June 13, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

physicsteacher: First of all, I didn't say anything about dropouts. You said there was an increase in the time needed to obtain a degree, and I questioned why this is something to prevent and, if it is, why the colleges don't try harder to keep costs down. (The latest wrinkle is to bundle the syllabus with the textbook inside shrink wrap so the students have to buy their texts from the bookstore instead of finding used copies on the Internet. I know, the bookstores have to make money too--but it just drives more kids away from college.)

Your concern that a non-graduating student may take up space that could be occupied by another sounds a bit like the "deserving poor" theories that charities used to apply. Have you suggested that your alma mater abolish sports scholarships because a "student" who only wants to play football and turn pro as soon as possible is taking space that could be occupied by a real student? (I assume no one believes in the "student-athlete" anymore.) And have you lobbied for an end to requiring subjects not directly related to the major (math and science for history majors, for example), since this takes classroom space and the instructor's time away from "serious" students who will make better use of those subjects?

To take your theory a bit further, a student should enter college knowing exactly what field he wants to work in, take only those classes that apply to that field, and never ask a question because it takes time that the professor could better use giving new information to student who already understood that point.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 14, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

One more thing: If your teen can't handle the stress of the SAT to get into Hahvahd, then what makes anyone think that your teen will be able to handle the stress of being IN HAHVAHD any better?

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 14, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

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