Friday, May 21, 2010

Why Are Standardized Tests So Long?

The Advanced Placement physics test is three hours long, encompassing 70 multiple choice questions and six to eight free-response questions. Other standardized tests, including the SAT and GRE, are similarly daunting. The LSAT (for lawyers) and MCAT (for doctors) both take up half a day.

But why? I sometimes wonder what's being tested: the student's knowledge of the material or his test-taking stamina.

Each additional hour of testing has declining returns in terms of evaluating the student's true underlying ability. It's always nice to have more data, but couldn't testing services draw pretty much the same conclusions from 30 multiple choice questions that they could from 70? Over a million students take the SAT alone each year. If each of these tests were an hour shorter with nearly the same results, wouldn't we all be better off? Not to mention, shorter tests are also less expensive to grade, at least for the free-response parts.

If we held the percentage of passing grades constant, I imagine we'd feel okay with a slightly different group of kids passing the shorter AP physics test but we'd be worried that a slightly different group of potential doctors was passing the shorter MCAT. But are the potential doctors who excel on short tests necessarily worse than those who excel on long tests?