Episode 51 Revamped SATs: How the New Format Affects Students' Executive Functioning

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Episode 51 of the personal brain trainer podcast

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          Erica: Welcome to the personal brain trainer podcast. I'm Dr. Erica Warren.

          Darius: And I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts. Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and explanations for everyday life. We explore executive function and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind.

          Erica: Come. Um, learn to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals. This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages. This podcast is brought to you by Goodsensorylearning.com, where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning. Finally, you can find Dr. Warren's many courses@learningspecialistcourses.com. Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.

          Darius: This podcast is sponsored by Dyslexiaproductivitycoaching.com. We give you a simple productivity system for your Apple devices that harnesses the creativity that comes with your Dyslexia. So, Erica, you've come across an interesting topic for today from a New York Times article inspired by it. Tell our listeners a little bit about this, what you're wanting to talk about.

          Erica: Yes. So the article is called The SATS will be different next year. And it was published on September 20, 2023. And I really liked it. It was actually sent by a friend of mine to me, and when I read it, it triggered so many thoughts. I thought it would be a really great opportunity for you and me to talk a little bit about this. And the question is, what does that have to do with executive functioning? Well, I think in order to do well on these big tests for people that live in other countries, the SATS is a very long, arduous test that students in the United States have to take. And most colleges require it, and, uh, that helps you to get into a good university. So I never thought they would still exist. I hated them when I took them. God, I'm not even going to say how many years ago it is now. And I never thought they would last this long. But this article brought up some really cool changes that gets me very excited. And, of course, what this has to do with executive functioning is when we put ourselves under these incredible time pressures that the SATS used to put us under, we're not necessarily able to use our executive functioning skills optimally. And the question is, what is our true ability, and how do we show that to universities or even to others? These standardized tests can be brutal for some, and they can be gifts for others. And so I thought this would be a cool little discussion that we could have about the SATS, but just about those types of tests in general.

          Darius: So the, uh, essence of this is really around tests as a whole, which is how important are time constraints in tests? Because there's an impetus to give people accommodations, especially folk with Dyslexia and other learning differences. To be given extra time in the test. And it's interesting because sometimes it's like, is this an unfair advantage you're giving that person or not? What is the dynamic of time pressure and tests? And really, that's the essence of what we're going to talk about today, time pressure and tests. That leads us into a wider scope of how tests are structured, too. So could you give us a quick overview of what this article said? Because it's behind a paywall, isn't it? So could you just give us a synopsis of this New York Times article? Uh, actually, before you do, I've got a few questions. As a person from Scotland, okay, I hear about SATS, okay? I know they're a big deal, but I have no idea, uh, what an Sat is like or what it stands for. So I do have an idea, but I'd like you to clarify it. Okay, so in the UK, for example, when we finish high school, we sit somewhere between three major and six major exams. So in Scotland, five to six higher level exams, they're called, and it could be biology, English, history, maths, uh, et cetera. And you get on that subject, and then your grade for going into university is a composite of those grades. You get points for each one, and that gets you into the university in the UK. In England. It's a level. You might get two or three A levels or seven GCSEs. And we never do anything like an Sat. Okay? So what is an Sat in relation to that? Is that something on top of doing these exams, or is this some sort of amalgamation of some mega exam?

          Erica: I think the purpose is they wanted to have some kind of external measure of, uh, whether someone could succeed in college. I think that was the original motivation. And of course, making a buck would be my theory. It's basically, again, produced completely outside of the school system. It's a company that creates this test, and they claim that it is a good indicator of academic success moving forward. So they look at a number of different areas, and it's all in the past. It has all been written, or it's a printed test that you have to follow. And then you have to use a scantron, which is I don't know if you have scantrons in England or maybe you call it something different. You just have to bubble in the answers. So they just put the sheet through, and it scores automatically. So if your answer, it's a multiple-choice question, right? But you don't write on the test. You write on a separate sheet that just has the numbers and the bubbles, and you have to color in the bubbles.

          Darius: Okay, so it's a multiple choice, but it's not on the paper itself. It's to the side, and it's like a score sheet at the side. And then you put that score sheet through this machine that just marks it for you. Understood. But what I want to know is what's the content of this test? Is it geography, or is it like an IQ test? What's it like?

          Erica: It has a verbal section, and that could be anything from and they change them, um, from year to year. Typically, it's things like reading a sentence and you say whether it's grammatically correct or incorrect, and it gives you all of these options. It could be vocabulary development. It could be analogies, like a bird is to fly as a dog is to walk. I suppose it would be, uh, in the verbal section, they have reading passages, and you have to answer questions. So it's measuring reading comprehension. And then there's a math section that's all computation, but it goes from pretty much elementary to almost calculus. And they have had a written section in the past. They've had it, then they've gotten rid of it. Then they brought it back, and they've gotten rid of it. I don't know if they still have, I think they even had it optional for a while. And that's pretty much what the SATS are. We also have another testing company that came out with the Acts, and they are more subject based, and most colleges will accept either or. So some students find that they do better on the Acts because it looks more at other subject areas, such as science or history. And if they're very good at subject.

          Darius: Based tests, I'm finding this hard to understand. Okay, so you could go to college just on an Sat.

          Erica: No. You have to also have graduated. You have to have a GED or have graduated from high school. But this is an additional measure. So, for example, many colleges will say, we accept students with a minimum score of and if your score is below that, then they won't even look at your application.

          Darius: I see. Even if you've graduated college, even if you were high school top of your class, and you got a low Sat. Really?

          Erica: Yes.

          Darius: Okay, so another clarification these numbers for SATS help us non-Americans understand what's, uh, a good score, a bad score, an average score.

          Erica: Typically, I think the highest score you can get is an 800, and a 500 is considered about average. Okay. But yes, if you can pretty much get really high 700, then you can pretty much go anywhere. If you get 800, then, wow, you're in an Ivy for sure. And then now there are those students that don't do well in high school, but then they rock on the SATS, and that gives them another opportunity to possibly get into a good school. Now, I didn't do that well on.

          Darius: The, but it doesn't work the other way around. Not really badly in the Sat. And you do really well in your subjects.

          Erica: There are quite a lot of colleges that don't require them anymore. I don't know what the percentage is. Maybe 5% uh, don't require it. Some of them make it optional. Uh, how did you do?

          Darius: You were just about to talk about how you did.

          Erica: I did very well on the math, but not so well on the English, probably because of the Dyslexia. I'm one of those people where they always have two right answers, but one's righter than the other. Which drives me crazy because I'm so analytical that I get stuck in a little hole of rationalizing things. And so I often pick the wrong one because I am too analytical. So anyway, I didn't do well enough, so that's why I didn't get into Harvard. But I had everything that could have gotten into Harvard except for the verbal. And I even tried to get in for my master's degree. Because this is the funny thing, is when you take the graduate entrance exams, same kind of thing, but they have one more section. It's an analytical section. And I think I got a 780, which is I had almost a perfect score on that. And I wrote a whole essay to them saying, I know my verbal score is a little bit low, but I have the analytical skills to make up for it. But they still didn't accept me, even though my dad went there wasn't enough anyway. So, yeah, it can be very frustrating for some people.

          Darius: And another piece of information I think that's useful is how long does the Sat normally take.

          Erica: Yeah, it's super long. It's like 3 hours long.

          Darius: Okay.

          Erica: So if like myself, I had double time way back when. Who can hold stamina for that long of a period of time? Now, some people are able to take it over a two-day period instead, but, uh, yeah, it's just such an unrealistic measure. I don't think there's ever been a time in my life where I've taken a test that long and why they seem to have thought over these years that that's okay. And that's a good measure because to me, there are a few issues keeping up stamina, which is executive functioning. Right. Being able to maintain some level of stamina for the SATS is very, very difficult. The other thing is just the time pressure, just the psychological pressure of needing to do well was enough to make anybody crumble. When I took the PSATs, my school didn't even warn us that we were going to take them. And they just told us that morning, we're going to give you the PSATs. And I went into a panic. Well, I cried my way through the test because they also put us in a room with a lot of noise. And the boy next to me who finished the test, each, uh, section really quickly, he would catch flies in his hand, and he would take one of his hairs out of his head and he would wrap his hair around the fly's neck. And when the fly would come back too, he had, like, the fly, and it was just going around in circles. And I'm trying to take the PSAT's, and I'm sobbing, needless to say. My principal got the scores back. He brought me into his office, and he said, erica, you're not college material. You should not go to. And because I bombed it so badly, I was just, uh, an emotional wreck. And anyway, that fueled a fire for to, and I actually ended up doing quite well, but not well enough to get into Harvard.

          Darius: And you have a PhD now.

          Erica: Yeah, not a problem. I'm happy with the path that I ended up taking because it led me here, which is a great place. But this is the whole thing. The SATS for many students are this looming exam that can create enormous amount of stress, and some kids take it over and over and over again. They spend thousands of dollars on tutors, and it's really intense. And of course, yeah, it's just been this super long, really agitating test, particularly for anybody with a learning disability. And although they offer accommodations, it's really difficult to get them because there have been so many people that have taken advantage of the system and gotten a diagnosis so they could have extended time. I mean, I kind of come from the camp anyway, is give everybody as much time as they need. You either know it or you don't. Who cares if it takes you longer to share your knowledge?

          Darius: Well, I remember when I was getting my IQ test done as part of my Dyslexia assessment at, uh, 35 years old, the assessor started giving me puzzles, and I would just work through the IQ puzzles, and she would give me a set amount of time to do the puzzles, and I would just burn through them. And she was opening up wrappers of puzzles she had never opened up before, saying, right, okay, here's some more, and so on. And then, uh, at the end of it, I said to her, uh, why do you do a time pressure? And she said, well, do you know what we found is that even if I gave you all the time in the world to do that puzzle, if you've not got enough IQ to do it, you can't do it. Even if you had all the time in the world, you would not be able to figure it out. And that's how these puzzles are designed. So either you can do it, or you can't. And if you can't do it, if I gave you more time, wouldn't make any difference. You wouldn't be able to do it.

          Erica: Uh, it depends. I don't know if I completely agree with her, but I get it. Yes.

          Darius: And so what's interesting and that is at the crux of this is, so some people believe you need the time pressure, and that's part of the test. And some people think, just give them m as much time as they need. What's your thoughts on that?

          Erica: I think that some people do well under time pressure and some people don't. But what the research is now showing, which now the SATS are paying attention to, according to this article, is that when you put people under extreme time pressure, they don't do their best work. And those that do process really quickly process not as deeply. Right. So I think they have decided to change it so that the test is shorter, and that people are given more time. And they claim that 97% of students complete all questions with time to spare, whereas before, hardly anybody finished it, some people did. But yeah, I mean, you had to really rush through it. And I have to agree with that. When you really do rush through things, your kind of skipping the surface and in some ways that can be beneficial. And of course, there are those people that are really good at just taking multiple choice tests because they kind of learn the logic behind it. And in fact, I know some people that cannot even study for a test, and they'll pass the multiple-choice test because they kind of get the whole logic behind it. You often will have two answers that are really similar, and those is one of those two. So those people that are really good at taking the test, they're able to knock off the other ones really quickly and they're able to kind of figure it out without even knowing the content. But yeah, so it's kind of interesting that they are now looking at the research that's saying that taking away the time pressure is better because we want to measure whether people can think more deeply, and we don't necessarily want to be having these impulsive people that are rushing through things. Although, frankly, if you're able to rush through it and get a really high score, that's pretty darn impressive. So, yeah, it'll be interesting to see. Uh, I guess if they have fewer problems, I wonder if they'll be harder. It's quite likely that they will be because they also want to be challenging people enough that not everybody's doing really well on the test. They have to have some kind of standard. But it's cool that they've redesigned this. I think that's really nice. But the nice thing also that I recognize, and actually, I didn't get this from the article, but I was thinking, my goodness, if they're claiming that 96 or 97% of students can finish this test in time, are they going to take away accommodations? And in fact, they are not. They say that students who receive extra time and they're in a single setting can have breaks. They also allow those that in the past that have had a reader, they will be allowed a screen reader with headphones, so they no longer have a live person. It will be a screen reader and they will automatically be approved for one half extended time. And then students that need breaks will have a pause button and a timer. And then students that have a writer or a scribe will be allowed to use speech to text software. Isn't that interesting? And then students approved for limited time, in other words, they can't focus for a huge quantity of time, will have multi day testing. And then students that are approved for large print exams will have the zoom feature. So all technology now is going to offer all of the accommodations, which is really interesting. And in the past, they also had a four-function calculator accommodation, and that is not going to be available, so it'll be interesting to see. But in the article, the author also talks about how he hopes that this will have a ripple effect in schools because of the SATS. He felt a lot of schools applied the same kind of time pressure. And he's hoping that because the SATS are creating this new format and providing extended time, that teachers are going to be more generous with the amount of time the students have and will make their tests shorter.

          Darius: So have this trickle-down effect from the Sat down, because a lot of the testing is conditioning children towards that, uh, Sat pinnacle. What's interesting here is the way of working with these tools. These testers must have to have some practice with speech to text and text reader pen and all of this jazz. And it's one thing having that accommodation, but it's another thing being able to use it, because I spend time with students, teaching them how to use assistive technology software. And it's not logical because it's a different way of working. You have to go through a different way of working. What are your thoughts on that?

          Erica: Uh, you're right. It's actually a different way of processing.

          Darius: Yes.

          Erica: Like a, uh, person's voice is processed very differently than a computerized voice. I would hope to think that they have really outstanding computerized voices because for some kids, it's distracting, or they can't really focus on a computerized voice. So, yeah, I think some issues are going to be coming up. But I think you brought up a fantastic issue, which is that if kids are going to get tutored for the SATS, part of their tutoring, if they need accommodations, needs to be how to use these tools. And as far as I know, so far, they don't have any practice exams out like digitized practice exams. Perhaps they do. I know the Khan Academy offers preparation for the SATS and acts for students, and I haven't looked lately to see if that digitization is available on their site. But, uh, yeah, I'm really curious about how they can practice using those accommodations. That's such a great thought. I love that you said that. It's really interesting.

          Darius: In my experience, often what I find is students are kind of plonked into they're used to doing it at school they do everything by hand, or someone reads out to them and then all of a sudden, oh, you're used to using a reader. Here's the technology instead. And they're like, oh, I don't know what to do here. I'm stressed out by this. So it's a new thing, so you've got to go in no variables. The only variable is the question, not any kind of peripheral thing. So when's this happen? When does this change happen? Has it happened already?

          Erica: I think actually happened in September was what I think. So I think the next time they give the SATS, it's going to be digitized. So I know I've had students that were planning out when they were going to take and some were like, oh, I want to take it before it's digitized. And other people are like, I want to take it after it's digitized. So I'm sure there'll be a learning curve. And I would imagine that, yeah, this whole accommodation thing is going to be something that we have to really be mindful of preparing students in need for.

          Darius: So what you're saying is previously it was a written paper version that they put onto these little sheets that get fed through the machine and now it's all completely digital.

          Erica: Yeah, you would have a booklet. You'd have a booklet in a booklet, and then you would have a separate scantron or score sheet where you score it. But that was an issue for a lot of kids, too, because if they miss sequenced yes. If they skipped an item and then they forgot and they bubbled in the wrong ones, that can create some big issues. And so there were those kids that had an accommodation that they could write directly on the test. Okay, but again, these accommodations weren't that easy to get. So that's a nice thing that they're not going to have to deal with anymore.

          Darius: So what else is new about this, huh? Help me get my head around the time they're by default giving everyone kind of extra time by keeping it still 3 hours long, but shortening the test so that everyone has the time to complete it? More or less.

          Erica: Well, my understanding is they've actually shortened the test as well, which makes me really happy because I think that's going to help a lot of students with Stamina. I just don't think it's realistic to expect anybody to be able to focus and give their best work for a three-hour period. I even feel that way over a two-hour period. We've talked about this a lot. We've talked a lot about these work cycles. There's the Pomodoro technique which says that you should work for 20 minutes and take a break. There's the flow time technique that says that you should really pay attention to what for some people it might be half an hour. For some people it might be 40 minutes. And you check with yourself, and you stay in a flow until you're not. And then you take a break. And then Huberman suggests 90 minutes workabouts, but there's nothing that suggests a three-hour workabout. And they have really short breaks, but they're not really breaks, they're just like, all right, our, uh, time's up, move to the next section. But that's not really a break. And of course, the amount of adrenaline that must be going on in these kids and for that kind of period of time has got to be cognitively exhausting. So thinking about what that does to executive functioning because although processing speed is not an executive functioning skill, it, uh, affects executive functioning. So if you're under a lot of stress and you're producing cortisol, a little bit of cortisol is helpful, but too much actually blocks memory. So that there are these kids that have test anxiety and although they're capable of rocking on the SATS, they don't because they can't access their knowledge because they're too anxious. So I'm hoping that that will help some with being able to be better at accessing executive functioning skills and accessing memory. But what are your thoughts on that?

          Darius: Well, I think it's one to make, um, sure we put in the diary this time next year that we review SATS and how this experiment's gone. And it would be an interesting pairing between this podcast and, uh, the next one in a year's time to get feedback from your students and parents in America once they've gone through this process. And it would be fascinating to watch this trickle-down effect. And yeah, I've got a few hesitations with this 100% digitization of tests. I think one of the accommodations has to be the option to be given a, ah, written copy of the test so that you can highlight it and underline it. Because I know a lot like one of my clients is a midwife and she's got her doctorate in midwifery but hasn't passed the assessment for her. What do you do? M licensing thing. And uh, it's like a four-hour, five-hour multiple choice. And what we found out was if she could get a paper copy and she underline the keywords that she's reading, she locks in her comprehension, whereas reading it on a screen, you can get lost, and your working memory gets overwhelmed. Whereas if she underlines keywords, her working memory doesn't get overwhelmed. She can look at the key ideas underline the question she wants and then click on the right one. Her marks when we went through some testing on that was from 60% to 75%, just with the ability to underline on the same kind of knowledge.

          Erica: Yeah, and I have another student that can't handle the light that comes off of the computer screen, right. And it just is so taxing on her eyes and exhausting and having to sit there for that long of a period of time with a computer in her face could even cause her to have a seizure. So yeah, that's really interesting. I think, in fact, what they're probably going to discover is they're going to need to define some new accommodations, and we won't really know what those are until we see the cognitive fallout right, from these new formats.

          Darius: My personal opinion is that I think every child should be allowed every single one of these accommodations if they wish.

          Erica: Yeah.

          Darius: And, uh, I think if you want to use a screen reader, you can. If you want to use a pen reader, you can. If you want to do speech to text, you can. If you want to do that, you can. And there will be some children that go, no, I hate that stuff. I don't want to do it. I can just do it on my own. And others who haven't got a Dyslexia assessment, who haven't got an ADHD or whatever, they haven't got these kinds of assessments maybe because they're not as wealthy to be able to afford it or they don't have the health. Care that covers it or whatever, then if everyone has access to all of these tools, extra time included, et cetera, then it solves a whole ton of problems.

          Erica: That's right. I mean, what are we trying to measure here? We're trying to measure knowledge. So why don't we let them show their knowledge however they feel is the best way for them to show their knowledge? I mean, I can see having some limit on time, because if somebody processes really slowly, that's going to impact them in life and in being able to hold on to a job. But, yeah, I think that that's a really good point.

          Darius: If they've got bog standard tools like speech to text and text to speech, and they can have it printed on paper if they want, okay. They put the final question into the digital version, and it's like, right, you've got all these, and there's like a bucket of pen readers. You pick one up if you want it like, you pick up a pen and you put it in at the end, and it's just like, standard across the board. And that's just the way you do it. You can type in your answers rather than handwrite everything in. So that for those people who've got Dysgraphia, et cetera, it's just, let's get up to speed, guys, and just give people the tools that ordinary people have in the real world, in college, et cetera, and not start testing 19th century problems in a 21st century world with their hands tied. Yeah, it's like, just give us the tools that are just normal in society now, like typing and speech to text and text to speech and being able to print something out and mark it, uh, up, or use it on an iPad and mark it up or whatever, these are all normal tools of everyday life. So my opinion is it's a step in the right direction, definitely. But where education needs to go. I mean, let alone AI. Just need to catch up with the technology that's already here, let alone AI. That's just going to steamroller a whole ton of this stuff, which is another conversation we will have in the future. But, uh, let's catch up with the reality of life, right?

          Erica: Let's allow people to process the way they need to process, to learn, but also to express their knowledge. So one of the things that I always push for is not only do we have to teach in a multiprocessing way, but we have to assess people's knowledge in a multiprocessing way. And people might be well, what do you mean? Well, again, we're just trying to measure if they have the knowledge, give them choices on how you're going to assess it. They could write a paper. They could do a mind map. They could do a wrap. There are so many different ways of knowledge.

          Darius: Yeah, but I mean, before we get to even that, there are so many other basics, like I've just mentioned.

          Erica: So anyway, this has been a really cool discussion. I think we will definitely revisit it at a later time. It will be interesting to see how these now digitized tests will impact learners, both those that are just taking the actual test and then perhaps a trickle down into the schools. And also, what's going to happen with accommodations? Is, for example, uh, a computerized voice good enough, or is that going to actually not be good enough? And I love your thought about why to not have a paper test in front of a student so that they can write on it, and they can process the way they need to process, whether it's highlighting keywords or whether it's actually writing out the answer and then matching their answer to the proper choice. So that's really interesting. So, yeah, let's revisit this sometime in the future.

          Darius: Revisit it next year. Thanks for bringing it up, Erica.

          Erica: Of course. This is a fun one. Thank you for joining our conversation here at the Personal Brain Trainer podcast. This is Dr. Erica Warren and, Darius.

          Darius: Namdaran. Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast. And, um, please leave us a review and share us on social media. Until next time. Bye.