As my older son gets ready to take the PSATs in two weeks, I was shocked, shocked to find out that a significant portion of his classmates, perhaps even more than half of them, have qualified for time and a half on standardized tests.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
For the most part, these are kids who've been making their through a highly demanding K12 private school without special accommodations, until such time as those high-stakes college tests start looming, at which point their well-to-do parents shop around until they find a psychotherapeutic professional willing to identify a processing speed disorder, for which a mere discrepancy between performance on timed vs. untimed activities can be sufficient justification. Competitive schools, eager to boost their college admissions statistics, can also be complicit, encouraging parents who might otherwise hesitatate to pursue this route.
While time and a half certainly aids these children--as it would aid countless others who remain undiagnosed but for whom time is a factor, including yours truly--it disadvantages those whose parents, whether out of financial considerations, ethical considerations, or mere lack of awareness, don't pursue extra time. And it also disadvantages kids with rapid processing speeds who test well, especially if they are underachievers for whom unusually high standardized test scores can make up for mediocre grades.
Time and a half may also be one reason why college admissions committees at many of the top schools have been de-emphasizing the SATs--another development that has been disadvantaging underachievers.
Is there any way to make things more equitable? I have a couple of thoughts. The most obvious strategy, of course, is to make it harder for parents of cognitively typical children to secure time and a half. But wealthy, determined parents will always find a way, and all it takes is one willing psychologist.
What about creating accommodations that are less crude than mere time, and tailored to where actual distortions in measured vs. actual ability lie? For kids with language deficits, like my autistic son, this would mean accommodations specific to the mathematics subtests, tailored to ensure that the language of the questions involved is not a barrier to answering them. For kids with fine motor or other manual deficits, this would mean accommodations (a keyboard being the most obvious) that ensure that handwriting does not interfere with performance on the essay writing section. For kids with visual processing disorders that interfere with the ability to rapidly decode strings of letters, this might mean having the critical reading subtests read out loud.
What about processing speed itself? Arguably it is both an integral component of intelligence and a predictor of intellectual performance (in everything from the science lab, to the tenure track, to the law office). But if we honestly don't care about processing speed as far as college admissions goes, then we should eliminate this factor for all students, and turn the PSATs, SATs, ACTs, and all and sundry achievement tests into untimed tests for everyone.