Extra Time on Standardized Tests

Recently someone and I had an exchange about the notion of extra time as an accommodation for standardized tests such as the SAT. He brought up some good questions. Here’s one of them and my reply:

Him: “Let’s talk about SAT tests. The fact that a neurotypical student benefits from extra time seems to indicate that the test is, in fact, sensitive to processing speed.. We’ll ignore for the moment the test’s predictive power vis-a-vis academic success (despite the fact that this is what the test is supposedly designed for!) and just ask whether we believe processing speed is a “scholastic aptitude.”

If it is not a scholastic aptitude, then my argument is that the SAT ought not be designed to reward it.

If, on the other hand, we assume that processing speed IS a scholastic aptitude, then we face a new set of questions, such as:

Is time-to-completion a reasonable, fair measure of competence?

How much processing speed should instructors be allowed to assume when designing assignments and tests?

Is processing speed the most significant scholastic aptitude? And if not, is its effect on SAT scores proportionate, or outsized?

And why, if processing speed is salient, is it wrong to take into account the fact that a student needed extra time to complete an assignment or test? Consider that a University’s capacity to provide extra supports may be precious and limited.”

My reply:

Here are my thoughts on some of your excellent questions and points:
You mention: “Let’s talk about SAT tests. The fact that a neurotypical student benefits from extra time seems to indicate that the test is, in fact, sensitive to processing speed.. …and just ask whether we believe processing speed is a “scholastic aptitude.”

If it is not a scholastic aptitude, then my argument is that the SAT ought not be designed to reward it.”

My thoughts: Processing speed is a neurological/cognitive performance marker AND is also an over emphasized academic skill. The fact that it may be both; that some people’s learning disability includes “slow processing speed” or as Dr. Martha Denckla terms it “slow production speed,” should help us see that leveling the playing field to accommodate this is a good and just thing. Certainly the courts have see this to be true. When you have a student who comprehends what they read and hear at a high level, but who processes print at a slow speed (classic bright dyslexic), then the accommodation of extra time to read and/or write makes perfect sense. While extra time may benefit anyone, the level of benefit is markedly different. Having a ramp benefits everyone but makes a world of difference to someone in a wheelchair, or simply one with a sprained ankle. That’s where the concept of universal design comes in. Perhaps the way to go is give everyone the time they need to complete the SAT or the like.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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5 Responses to Extra Time on Standardized Tests

  1. Joe says:

    Very interesting exchange. A fair approach might be to simply lengthen the SAT time by around 50% to 100% for everyone. In short, plenty of time for everyone, but not unlimited time. Even those with serious slow processing speed should be able to cope with that amount of time.

  2. Richard says:

    I agree with Joe’s idea: lengthen it for everyone.

    Of course, maybe a better idea is to completely change the method of finding out if students know material. I don’t know how, but maybe a complete, disruptive change would be better to work on than modifying the current paradigm.

    I really do like the post and original question though, it’s wonderfully written and thought provoking.

  3. Sanford says:

    Richard and Joe,

    I’m in favor of offering more time for everyone.

    Interestingly, I’ve read evidence shows that giving extra time for people with certain LD benefits them specifically and to a degree that those who don’t struggle with reading fluency for example, don’t show.

    However, it can’t hurt those who may not need it and helps those who do. It levels the playing field without marginalizing or making a special deal of it.

  4. Richard says:

    This sentence really caught my eye/ear:

    “If it is not a scholastic aptitude, then my argument is that the SAT ought not be designed to reward it.”

    I think this is the nub of it for me. Sorting out exactly what the necessary skills are for getting a college education, or, backing out further, for succeeding in life, ought to be tossed up for examination.

    I don’t know if this still holds but when I was on the lecture circuit I used to quote a Harvard study that essentially said:

    There is no coincidence between doing well in school and doing well in life.

    This, to me is the real nub of it. I’m wondering if the design of formal education (re: school) is set up not to teach skills, but to sort out the highly verbal fast processors from the rest of us and of course these days highly coveted jobs are looking for people who exhibit these skills.

    There will always be successful people who don’t fit that mold (outliers) but for the most part, western culture, hell, these days eastern culture too, rewards the highly verbal fast processor.

    Over the years we’ve given lip service to setting up curricula to encourage other types of thinking, even reward it, but it seems to me that in the past 20 years or so instead of broadening the learning style base, things have actually become narrower. Some of this is no doubt pull: fewer manufacturing jobs, more IT/office jobs and the job descriptions will look different. But, some of it is push: parents push kids to do well in school thinking its the foundation for their future.

    School is just one kind of education, I wish others had better standing. Give me the kid who has a C average but has traveled the world with a backpack over the kid who’s never been out of his native country and all he did was grind over his studies to get straight As.

    Give me the kid who has a serious hobby: building and flying model airplanes, snowboarding, bird watching, rock climbing, over the kid who, again, has a mono-education.

    Etc.

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