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Do Timed Tests Really Measure Math Ability?

Why do they have these timed tests, like 25 problems in 3 minutes?

This is an excellent question.

I currently work and have worked with quite a few students who receive extra time on standardized tests, and I know for a fact that colleges do not factor this into their decision.

Meaning, if we have two absolutely identical students A and B, and A scores a 2100 out of 2400 with regular constraints while B scores a 2200 with double the time, B gets in and A doesn’t.

So, first, does time really matter? And second, if it does, why does time matter?

My sister has argued that students should not freely be given extra time. I think my hypothetical identical students identified this problem. Her basic point is that in the real world (or a college environment), speed and time are factors. Take two engineers applying for a job: it’s obvious that the guy who’s faster at math has a practical advantage.

Yet, I’ve worked with students who just need more time, and for each of them, I’m so glad that they get the opportunity to let their true intellectual power show.

Let’s also not forget that some skills, such as memorizing one’s times tables, simply isn’t practically useful for some people; some memorize the tables, some figure out other methods, but nowadays most people just use their calculators or their cell phones.

It’s worth noting that times tables are not required for the SAT, as students are expected to use a graphing calculator.

Regardless of whether or not one believes in a somewhat arbitrary speed test of very particular and complex skills, one has to acknowledge the other practical constraints that come into play for such tests.

The SAT is a very odd test by any standards other than its own. Aside from the now-very-similar ACT, there’s no competition in town: to get into an American college, everyone must take this test. As such, the test is designed so everyone can take it in as ideal conditions as possible. This is why SATs are given at the exact same time on the exact same day across the entire country; if they could, I’d bet the College Board would standardize the weather.

When you consider the fact that millions of people take this test, each one needing to be quickly graded and reduced to a decipherable “score,” it quickly becomes apparent that some kind of time restraint is required; it’s simply not feasible for tests like the SAT to be un-timed.

The same goes for tests in regular schools; why else would you constrain an individual student to 3-5 pages for a paper? Most teachers ask for 5 page papers because they don’t have time to grade 10 page papers.

Why have timed tests?

We are such an intellectual species that speed does count for us, especially in our contemporary world of rapidly increasing access to information.

But, time restraints end up actually being or at least feeling unfair, and that reducing someone’s intellectual capability to how quickly they can do times tables is at best foolish and at worst morally reprehensible.

Whereever you may come down on that fence, the fact of the matter is that it’s part of the educational “game.”

The timed test isn’t going away any time soon.

What do you think about timed tests?

Matt Cousins is a tutor and test prep specialist, and an automotive purchase consultant.

You can leave questions for Matt in the Comments section below, or reach him at [email protected].

(photos of old brick schoolhouse, no longer in use)

Do Timed Tests Really Measure Math Ability?

matt cousins

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APA Reference
, . (2010). Do Timed Tests Really Measure Math Ability?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 May 2010
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