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Speed Is Key to High Test Scores

The latest criticism of the SAT and ACT involves the difference in performance of female test takers compared with male test takers on the math section of these two instruments ("Standardized Tests Are a New Glass Ceiling," The Nation, Mar. 1).  Even though females post higher grades in math in high-school courses than males, when they take standardized tests, they are behind.

There are several explanations, but the best is that females tend to be better course takers, and males tend to be better test takers.  That's because speed is most rewarded on the SAT and ACT.  For example, the new SAT allots 83 seconds to answer each math item, while the ACT allots 60 seconds. Females tend to overanalyze the options, which penalizes them.  In contrast, males perceive the tests as a contest to be gamed.  In short, males have the correct mindset.

I've never understood why speed is such a heavy factor.  If producing thoughtful students is the ultimate goal of education, speed should not be a consideration.  Of course, there are notable exceptions.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, we were given practice writing news stories under a stipulated deadline because that is how the real world of journalism works.  But we were allowed far more time when the writing assignment involved commentary.  The correct rationale was that the latter demanded more thought than boilerplate reportage.

Although the essay I cited involved only criticism of standardized testing for math, I maintain that it also applies to reading. How important is it to be able to quickly read a long passage and then choose the correct answer from four options?  I don't know any job that demands that ability.  In fact, just the opposite happens.  Consumers are repeatedly told to carefully read a contract before signing.  Speed is likely to be counterproductive when a key clause is not given enough thought.  

Placing such faith in the SAT and ACT is not only going to continue to disadvantage females on the math portion, but also do a disservice to others whose abilities are better shown in ways that do not depend on swiftness.  I'm reminded of the turtle and the hare.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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