It’s that time of year again when many high-school students are anxiously preparing to take their college entrance exams. With some universities temporarily waiving their SAT and ACT requirements in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many are left wondering if these changes ought to be permanent. As a therapist who has seen the emotional turmoil that this testing process has on teens and their families, I think this is an important opportunity to rethink entrance exams, if not abandon them entirely.
There are a number of reasons to believe that the emotional, financial, and social costs of college entrance exams outweigh their perceived benefits. As Forbes reports, researchers have found that standardized test scores are worse predictors of college successes than GPA, and that re-taking the test (which for some is financially untenable) increases scores by more than 100. This evidence places the validity of testing results in question. In addition, expensive prep-courses may give teens from affluent families an unfair advantage (although the true benefits of prep courses are questionable), and, conversely, teens who suffer from test anxiety are not given a fair chance to demonstrate their intelligence. Is the combined stress and financial burden of these exams worth it, if the information they provide for college admission consideration is so flimsy?
My response to this question is no—but that testing might be worth it, if we can reduce the amount of stress. To do this, I suggest providing unlimited time for all students. The SATs and ACTs are time-limited, with each allowing approximately 3 hours for test takers (here are the breakdowns for the SAT and ACT) . The emphasis of these tests on speed rather than careful calculation and thoughtfulness has driven many students to seek out extra time. Students who have parents with the financial resources and knowledge of the system often turn to the expensive neuropsychological evaluation process (an evaluation can cost as much as $10,000) to receive extra time or accommodations, which vary based on test and student needs, but typically include at least a 50% time-extension for special needs students. There are those who have disabilities and legitimately need extra time, but there are also students whose parents “game the system” to get extra time.
A young patient of mine suffering from anxiety asked me, “how does speed make me a more intelligent candidate? Why do the colleges care if I am fast rather than careful, and accurate?”
I had no answer—he was right. In my opinion, extra time should not be denied to any student, as speed on a standardized test has nothing to do with future college performance. Why shouldn’t colleges praise emotional calm and thoughtfulness over speed? Why have we chosen to emphasize speed testing in our culture at all? This race to the finish line is driving our kids crazy, literally. There are so many young patients I have seen who go blank when forced to take time-limited tests under the pressure of a severe time limit, that I have lost count.
Covid-19 has taught us many things, and one of those teachings is to slow down. This learning should be incorporated into our testing approach. When did intelligence become about speed, anyway? This overemphasis on strict time-limits turns healthy kids into stressed kids, and strains families to anxiously plead with neuropsychological evaluators to provide their children with special accommodations. There are already so many inequities in our educational system; time allowed on college entrance exams should not be another one. If we are going to keep these exams, despite their flaws, giving extra time to all students would at least eliminate an unnecessary source of anxiety.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Ms. Komisar is a Contributing Editor at the Institute For Family Studies.