Letters from Maine

It’s not about time


Like most couples of retirement age, rituals dominate our breakfasts. I eat eggs. Marilyn leans toward baked goods. We each have a bowl of fruit and finish by working the New York Times mini-crossword on our electronic devices. Solving it usually takes somewhere between 40 seconds and 4 minutes. The challenge lies in how fast one can complete the puzzle. And, being who we are, Marilyn and I have ritualized this into a serious competition. She usually takes the first turn and then tries to psyche me out by announcing, “I did it in 2:34, but you should be able to solve it in less than 2 minutes.” This bit of gamesmanship often means that I am going to start the day with thin layer of nervous perspiration.

stressed teenage girl taking test in school Antonio_Diaz/thinkstockphotos
Given that these puzzles are designed so that they can be easily solved by anyone with modest crossword experience, does the speed of completion have any importance beyond giving the septuagenarian winner bragging rights until the next morning? A recent Wall Street Journal article (“Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help,” by Douglas Belkin, May 25, 2018) reports that an increasing number of colleges are rethinking the value of timed exams. Driving this trend toward leniency is the recent increase in the number of students claiming a disability that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to taking an exam, particularly when the test includes a time limit.

The claimed disabilities range from an anxiety disorder and ADHD to a problem with reading comprehension. The number of students requesting a test environment modification at Pomona College, Claremont, Calif., is 22% up from 5% in 2014. At Marlboro College in Vermont, one in three students asks for more time or a less distracting setting.

This phenomenon raises two obvious questions. First, what has happened to the bell-shaped curve? Was it too boring hanging out with all those people under the bell? Do folks feel safer and more secure in the tails? I guess we have to be happy that young people are less afraid to admit they are different. But it does make one wonder how we should go about defining a disability.

The second question is whether timed tests deserve a place in our educational toolbox? How often is processing speed important? I would like the woman piloting my flight to San Francisco to be quick-witted. But what about the research chemist working on a more durable tire compound? Is it a problem that it took him 30% longer than his classmates to successfully finish his college statistics final exam?

What about the lawyer who bills you $500 per hour to review the contract with your employer? It might have been helpful to know before you hired him that he routinely requested an extra hour and a half to complete his exams in law school. But I suspect that for the most part timed tests probably don’t produce better graduates. In the past they may have been used to thin oversubscribed disciplines, and certainly time limits have been the norm at every level of education I encountered. However, the best taught courses had exams with an abundance of time. Either you knew the information or you didn’t. An extra 2 hours wasn’t going to make a difference.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

It is impractical to give every student an unlimited amount of time to take his or her exams. And it may be unfair to offer the extra time to some students and not to others. The best solution comes when the teacher and student can have a dialogue that begins, “This is what I want you to learn. What is the best way you can show me that you have learned it?”

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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