Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Extra time on standardized tests: pitting underachievers against slow processors

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.

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.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Your argument for removing processing speed from standardized tests is a reasonable one, but unlikely to happen as it raises the costs of testing significantly (proctors would have to be hired to wait until the last student finished).

I think also that the colleges would prefer for there to be some time pressure, as time to complete tasks is (somewhat) relevant to college success. The cheating on extended time seems to be mainly a private school phenomenon, as I've seen one of the local private schools label over a third of the kids as having learning disorders, on no more evidence than that they didn't turn in some homework. (Their tame psychologist tried to "give" my son a label without ever meeting him or seeing any of his work.)

FMA said...

It makes no sense that parents should be allowed to pick a psychologist to evaluate their child. Shouldn't the testing organizations get to pick who does the evaluation? Eliminating timing altogether will just lead to a further dumbing down of our educational system.

Anonymous said...

I shudder to think of all the possible diagnoses I could have gotten for my children to get them accoodations. These should be reserved for children with condition that have been well-documented since (at the latest) mid-elementary school.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The 'read aloud' on critical reading doesn't relaly make sense on a college admissions test, since a big chunk of college involves reading. Being able to read quickly and well IS a good predictor of success in college.

On the other hand, if your little prized pumpkin made it to 10th grade and you're JUST NOW REALIZING that she can't read fluently........perhaps college should be put off until she's had some intervention....

Anonymous said...

Seriously? Half the kids??? I'm sure people who seek a diagnosis have convinced themselves that it was necessary and you couldn't tell them otherwise. But - is there any downside to being inaccurately labeled? 10-15 years ago the thought of putting a "pre-existing condition" on a child's record would have made me think twice, because of the risk of being denied health insurance, for example. I would have worried that it might have had some impact down the line since your life is an open book to anyone with the simplest surveillance tools. But, after health care reforms, and the lessening of stigma around psychological ("behavioral") care, is that less of a fear nowadays? Seriously, is there ANY risk involved in seeking a diagnosis simply in order to give a neurotypical child "every advantage?"

Liz Ditz said...

I'm surprised that your school has 50% on extended time -- the person who handles accommodations with the College Board must have some serious clout. They (the College Board) historically have limited the number of accommodations given at any one school. I know of three families with documented disabilities going back to early elementary school who had to threaten litigation to get the deserved accommodations.

The other part of the story is that the accommodations that CB gives are more or less one size fits all. In other words, the accommodations the student uses the most (such as text-to-speech) aren't available for most students without vision disabilities.

Another example would be composing the written response using a computer -- well, if the student has that accommodation, must also have time & a half, whether it's needed or not.

It's a frustrating situation.

Liz Ditz said...

Deirdre Monday:

You may be naive on the issue of reading disability.

Many students with specific learning disability - reading (or dyslexia)who have been well-remediated continue to have slower reading rates, both silent and oral, than neurotypical peers.

Recent advances in technology that make text-to-speech easy and relatively inexpensive have helped level the playing field for such students.

Most of the LD students I know in college who use text-to-speech read and take notes as they listen to the texts read aloud. Most text-to-speech options allow the user to set the reading rate; really adept users can get up to >200 WPM, or approaching that of skilled readers.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Liz-- 200 WPM may be adequate for some majors/colleges.

However, when I was in college, in my LEAST READING HEAVY QUARTER (Where I was taking Greek, Science and Math in addition to a Core Lit course) I was expected to read at least 200,000 words a week. At 200 words a minute, that's 16 hours for the reading for one, very easy course, not counting the time spent on research papers.

Speed does matter, and it seems unfair to leave that information off the tests -- students need accurate information on how well they'll be able to handle the workkload at a given school- after all, there are only so many hours in a week!

Perhaps a good solution would be to give all the tests untimed, but record how long it took the students to take them? Students could be ranked based on correct answers AND the time it took to het those answers.

On reason so few students complete college is that, going in, they don't have a clear idea about what sort of workload they'll face.

A student who took an hour to get a 2400 is NOT directly comparable to a student who took 6 hours to achieve the same score.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

I too am shocked, shocked, especially as my oldest son just took the PSATs on Wednesday and I had never even heard of the "time and a half" option. I truly had no idea. I guess I am the opposite of a helicopter parent. Oh well!

I am sure all kids would benefit from having more time, at the very least to check over their answers. It does seem unfair that those kids with knowledgeable, assertive and financially advantaged parents get this edge. Surely college admissions people would somehow be alerted if a wealthy private school had a 50% extra time rate and realize what is happening? (I ask woefully and hopefully?)

Barry Garelick said...

In prior years, those students who were given extra time because of disabilities were identified as having received this accommodation when their test scores were reported to the schools. ETS stopped that practice so that students receiving accomodations are no longer identified. When that policy was adopted, the number of students applying for the accomodation shot up meteorically.

I know someone who received the accomodation and needed it. It was not a slam dunk to get it, so it really depends on the school