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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Timed tests are misleading: Success is a marathon, not a sprint

The new digital SAT will take two hours, instead of three, and will give students more time to answer each question.

That's a much better way to evaluate students' potential to do well in college, writes Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, in a New York Times commentary. "In school, timed tests teach kids that success is a sprint. But in life, success is a marathon."

"A race against the clock doesn’t measure knowledge or intelligence," he writes. "It assesses the much narrower skill of how well students reason under stress," and tends to underestimate students' capabilities.

Gender gaps on math tests narrow when students have more time, several dozen studies show. Female students, who "tend to work more methodically than male students," do better.

Schools typically offer extended time on tests for students with disabilities, incentivizing attempts to game the system by getting a learning disability diagnosis. That would end, writes Grant, if everyone got enough time to answer the questions.

The SAT has been giving students “too much to cover and not enough time to do it,” the College Board’s chief executive officer, David Coleman, told Grant. In pilot of the new, shorter digital test, “97 percent of students complete all questions in a section with up to seven minutes to spare on each section,” Coleman said. “It’s time we stop confusing quick with smart.”

I've spent my adult life writing on deadline. I think being able to function well under stress is a very useful skill. (And I was very good at tests in my day.) But I like the idea of giving extra time to everyone. You need to think deeply? Go ahead and see if it helps.

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