Testing: When Size Matters

Does the size of a testing group affect student performance? A recent study cited in The Economist theorizes that it can have a significant effect. Two researchers: one from University of Michigan and one from University of Haifa in Israel examined the results of the 2005 SAT and noticed a difference in scores relative to group size. They found an inverse relationship between group size and test scores. In other words, as the number of test-takers increased, the average scores on the test decreased. In fact, they discovered a similar pattern for the Cognitive Reflection Test, which is also an analytical exam.
The researchers tried to determine if their data resulted from such external factors as inadequate or uncomfortable seating conditions or distracting noises in unsuitable locations like gyms or large lecture halls. To rule out this possibility they conducted another experiment. “They asked 74 university students to take a timed, easy general-knowledge quiz which they were asked to finish as quickly as possible without compromising their accuracy. Each student completed the test alone, but half were told they were competing against ten other people and the other half that they were competing against 100.” Those students who thought they were competing against the smaller group finished about 5 seconds faster than those who imagined they were in the larger group! So the psychological component over-rode external factors.
These findings point not only to the advantage of small group testing situations but also to the ability to use psychological factors to control outcome. Students testing in a smaller setting may reap the benefits with higher test scores. So registering for a test early may be one way to insure placement in an optimal location. In fact, students applying to independent schools usually take the Secondary School Admission Test at a school. However, they can choose to take the test privately (Flex Test) with a certified educational consultant for an additional fee. They are allowed to take that Flex Test only once during the academic year. So perhaps the test makers already noticed the advantage that testing alone provided those students.

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