BENNETT: Experimental exams exhaust students




The sun is shining. The birds are chirping. It’s a beautiful day. And I experience none of this because I’m locked in a pasty testing room with a broken AC, my eyes burning and mind whirling from convoluted test questions.

I’m tired. I’m hungry. I woke up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday because I waited too long to sign up for the SAT and 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 some exams 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 used to include this section only on exams without the essay. As of this year, however, College Board includes it on exams with the essay as well, designating “some test centers” and “certain administrators” to hand out section five.

College Board vaguely stipulates that any question from any section of the exam could be an “operational or pre-test” question – so no slacking on section five! It may count toward your actual score. Otherwise, College Board is unnecessarily vague about this experimental section.

Some students believed section five could impact their scores and put their all into it. Other students, likely caught up in this convoluted wording, strode out of the testing room proudly proclaiming they didn’t try on section five. I do not envy these students.

Section five raises 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?

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 based on 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. 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.

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.