A Question of Time: SAT and ACT

June 15, 2010

In The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss discuss the issue of time in standardized college entrance exams.

How long do the exams take?


  • 25 minutes for 7 sections in essay, critical reading and writing, and math
  • 20 minutes for 2 sections of each for math, critical reading and writing
  • 10 minute for a section of multiple choice section

TOTAL 3 hours and 45 minutes


  • 45 minutes English
  • 60 minutes math
  • 35 minutes reading
  • 35 minutes science
  • 30 minutes essay

TOTAL 3 hours and 25 minutes (students with disabilities get extra time)

What are the main issues?

  • Timed tests create pressurized situations that do not necessarily showcase the student’s abilities.
  • Real academic tasks rarely require the ability to rapidly answer SAT or ACT style questions (though speed may be helpful), and academia should test “background knowledge, seriousness of purpose and effort… essentials of good scholarship” (Howard Garner, Harvard University educator). 
  • Slower students (regardless of their ability or academic dedication) and students with educational disabilities are not given extra time. Getting “diagnosed” with a learning problem is expensive

Is the SAT Relevant?

August 31, 2009

It was all over the news last week (including this article in the Wall Street Journal) that SAT scores have fallen to the point where combined scores are the lowest this decade.  Reading scores are the worst since 1994.  This has lead to much discussion about the merits of No Child Left Behind, with some saying that the lower scores are an indication of its failure.  On the other hand, some argue that scores are lower due to the democratization of the test, which has been taken by a growing number of students (especially minority students from poorer districts) since 1999.  (This obviously does not address why the gap exists, just that it is there and how it affects the SAT statistics.)  This explanation ties in interestingly with the fact that many elite, northeastern colleges have stopped requiring the SAT as part of the admissions process.  The thinking according to this article is that “An avalanche of research…concludes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that SATs rank income.  Not aptitude.”

So what is going on here?  Are scores actually holding steady overall, and it is simply a fact of more students being tested?  Has No Child Left Behind negatively impacted SAT scores?  Are wealthy parents more likely to pay for test prep, thus skewing the results?  What do you think?