A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Testing fatigue and the SAT: Is it too much of a brainnumbing thing?

How good would you be at sitting taking a high-stakes test for nearly four hours?

News reports last week announced that SAT scores, on average, declined 5 points since the new three part version of the SAT was made mandatory in March.
The new SAT, which debuted in March 2005, now officially lasts three hours, 45 minutes, but takes longer if instructions and breaks are included.

"Right now, it's longer than the GRE, the LSAT and the GMATs, and those are all taken by college students or college graduates," said Brad MacGowan, a guidance counselor at Newton North High School in Massachusetts, who has asked the College Board to let students split up the exam.

Counting tests taken through January, scores for the upcoming college freshman class are down between four and five points on the combined math and critical reading sections, according to the College Board, which owns the SAT. Full-year numbers are expected to show a "small additional decline."

Among other possible explanations for the decline, some speculate that since the College Board raised the cost of the exam from $28.50 to $41.50, many students are foregoing taking the test multiple times, although I fail to see how that would already be apparent immediately after the first time they gave the test. Students haven't had time to take the new version of the test more than once.

I personally never took the SAT-- most colleges I wanted to attend did not require it, and money was tight in the Cornelius household. I barely scraped together the money to take the ACT twice. I remember how it seemed like the GRE took forever, too.

However, I don't think it would be a bad idea to allow students to take the writing portion, which added 45 minutes to the length of the test, one day, and the other portion on another day.


At 5/16/06, 10:02 PM, Anonymous Jeri said...

Our middle school results indicate this same thing. 2 years ago the 6th graders had to take the tests over just 2 days. This was so the schedule (6-8 and 9-12 in one site) would be easier to manage. Their scores went way down across the board. Last year, at the recommendation of the 6th grade team, the 6th graders had 4 days and their scores were much better.

Don't know what it proves, exactly, but still . . .

At 5/17/06, 12:49 AM, Anonymous Muriel said...

Might it also be that students have no opportunity to get accostumed to taking such long tests?
In France, 4 hour exams are pretty much the norm starting junior year. The Baccalauréat exam at the end of senior year typically involves at least 2 morning 4 hour sessions, usually followed by a 2 or 3 hour session in the afternoon.
I don't remember it being horrendous, but then again we'd had the opportunity to "train" for the exam by taking previous 4 hour tests.
Maybe the form of the exam also makes a difference. The Baccalauréat is not a standardized test.

At 5/17/06, 6:22 AM, Anonymous meep said...

Well, college final exams are often 3 hours. And they're usually not multiple choice.

As for me, though I'm much older, I have to take a series of professional exams, some of which are 6-hour essay exams. We get one break in the middle, and we're allowed only bottled water for sustenance while the exam is on.

So I'm agreeing with Muriel here -- kids have no problem sitting online chatting for 3+ hours, and I bet they'd have no problem with 4-hour exams if they practiced at it.

At 5/17/06, 7:48 AM, Blogger Caleb said...

I think the fact that it's a standardized test is a key difference from, say, a long final exam that the students' teacher has prepared for them: much less stressful from a student's point of view.

And I also think there is a world of difference between surfing the Internet for 4 hours and being bent over a scantron and a calculator for 4 hours. The difference isn't just one of degree; it's one of kind. The age difference is crucial too: teenage attention spans just aren't the same as adult ones, and for them, the long-term consequences of their performance on the SAT are not as clear as, say, the immediate consequences of one's performance on a professional exam.

I've proctored the SAT a few times this year and it really is grueling on the kids. There are only two 5 minute breaks, and the last four or five sections are taken straight through with only a stretch break. In one test I actually saw a couple of students just throw in the towel on a section or two and put their heads on their desks.

At 5/17/06, 8:54 AM, Anonymous Half Sigma said...

Scores are scaled based on the questions being of the same difficulty.

But if they made the testing environment more difficult (by increasing the length of the test), then it is reasonable to conclude that this could have a small impact on the number of questions answered correctly even if the question difficulty remains the same.

And a 5 point drop is a pretty small impact.

It's unlikely that raising the price of the test would cause scores to drop. It would likely have the opposite effect because children of rich parents score higher, on average, than children of poor parents.

At 5/17/06, 9:30 AM, Anonymous Mrs. Bog said...

Bog Jr., who is dyslexic, recently took four days of our state's high stakes test and a day of APBio. The day after the AP test Bog Jr. spent six hours in the ER, throwing up and getting an ulcer diagnosed. One has to wonder about the stress...

At 5/17/06, 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams A girl I know (yes I am being coy, but family uproar ensues if I'm not, and not from the girl in question) took the SAT with time-and-a-half accommodations. She reported "her brain was bleeding" after the 5 1/2 hours of testing. As Caleb said (" In one test I actually saw a couple of students just throw in the towel on a section or two and put their heads on their desks.") -- this girl and her friends all said that toward the end "It was just, whatever!".

The girl in question did well-enough that she doesn't have to take it again.

At 5/17/06, 9:36 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

My students stress far more over an SAT than they do on a final. I final is one component of a grade in one class, and it is a task they've done countless times. An SAT is something you take two or perhaps three times in your lifetime, and it can have a tremendous impact on your life.

Personally, I actually enjoyed the ACT-- it was like a game to me. I zipped right through and then took a nap at the end of each section. But I know THAT attitude is very rare. There used to be tests around here for a kid to get into private high schools, and I taught 8th grade-- I had big hulking boys burst into tears in fear before they went in for testing.

At 5/20/06, 2:18 AM, Anonymous Muriel said...

It's interesting how students seem to stress over this SAT since as you've said, they have the opportunity to take it again.
I'm just saying this because in France, the Baccalauréat is a very high stakes exam. If you don't pass, you don't graduate and have to repeat you whole senior year. Getting your Baccalauréat is a major milestone in the road to adulthood here.
I also think that chatting and testing are two entirely different things. Nevertheless, if students had the opportunity to practice taking four hour tests, not only would they get better at time and effort management, but they might also diminish their anxiety, since they'll know what to expect.

At 5/21/06, 11:20 AM, Blogger GuusjeM said...

I can top a 4 hour SAT. Our TAKS (state mandated test) can be an all day affair - we've had kids stay after school till 6pm! And we're talking 8, 9 & 10 year olds. Can you imagine an adult being expected to focus on one task for 10 solid hours!


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