BENNETT: Experimental exams exhaust students


The sun is shining. The birds are chirping. It’s a beautiful day. And I’m locked in a pasty testing room with a broken AC, my eyes burning, my mind whirling from convoluted test questions.

I’m tired. I’m hungry. I woke up at 5 a.m. because the closest available testing center was an hour from my house. My hands cramp preemptively in preparation for the essay section. I shoot a glare at the boy next to me with that maddeningly scratchy pencil.

But it’s almost over. Just an essay to go.

“Please turn to SAT section five.”

And my world shatters.

College Board includes section five on the occasional exam to test-drive the rigor of future questions. If the SAT is a rollercoaster, students with section five are the ones paid to ride it first to make sure no one dies.

Except, of course, the students aren’t volunteering.

College Board designates “some test centers” and “certain administrators” to hand out section five. However, its language surrounding the section is equivocal, convoluted and its information insufficient, leaving students to wonder just what they’ve gotten themselves into.

Just before the exam, the designated proctor reads aloud that any question from any section of the exam could be an “operational or pre-test” question – a lofty way of saying no slacking on section five! It may count toward your actual score.

Some students indeed put their all into it. But others, likely caught up in this convoluted wording, strode out of the testing room proclaiming they didn’t.

There must be far clearer ways to communicate to students: there will be five sections, and one will be experimental, and you won’t know which one it is. (Or, there will be experimental questions that don’t count towards your score throughout all five sections. College Board hasn’t made it clear which one’s the case, even though students deserve to know the way their exam works.) There’s no need to trip up stressed students with lofty testing jargon. Instructions should be about communication, not formality.

Section five raises also numerous questions – for instance, I received an experimental reading section. All of the questions were based on the same passage. So, either this reading passage replaces my passage from the actual test or it doesn’t count at all, right? Does this mean that it’s possible all of my section five questions count toward my score, while only half count for my math counterpart, since math questions are stand-alone and can be sprinkled throughout the exam more easily?

And, if only “some test centers” hand out section five, does that mean there are times the scores of a section five test taker are curved against the scores of kids who only had four sections?

Because it does matter. It is harder to do well on section five by nature of it being later in the test. On that note, it’s harder to do well on the essay if you have to complete a five-section test beforehand, rather than a four-section one. By that time, my initial fast and the furious speed looks more like the line at the local DMV. Testing fatigue sets in, my will to live is dwindling and community college looks sweeter than ever.

And, when section five is harder than the other sections, as it was for me this time around, trying to do well is like experiencing my grandfather’s hike to school “uphill in the snow – both ways!”

College Board could account for this by ensuring all students take section five and all section fives have the same number of “operational” test questions. However, considering the all-or-nothing conundrum presented by the reading and writing sections compared to the math, this is likely not the case. Or perhaps it is – College Board’s commitment to the section five mystique makes it impossible to tell.

When mystique comes before clear communication on an exam that determines a kid’s chance at college, it’s doing a disservice to not only their test score, but their future as well.

It only gets worse for those staying for the essay. There’s a collective sigh as somber faces stare down at the reading prompt before them.

“Write an essay analyzing how the author builds his argument. You have 50 minutes.”

I’m almost too demoralized to be vexed by the boy writing with the scratchy pencil. Or no – no his scratching has just turned into a somber symphony, the cacophony of noise settled into a melancholy tune. No, I’m not annoyed. I’m just sad.

I finish the essay. Stare at it. Jumbled words in clunky sentences and shallow analysis. No, it’s not awful. It’s just sad.

I walk to the car. My ride home has waited 40 minutes for me to finish a section I did not plan to take.

“What happened?” they ask.

Section five. Section five happened.

“How do you feel about it?”

Not awful. Just heartbreakingly, miserably sad.