The past two years have been hard on us all. We’re tired, stressed, and burned out. We’re not performing at our best. We’re making mistakes we don’t usually make.
This includes those who proctor standardized tests. And that means the proctor of your SAT or ACT might make a mistake that could compromise your performance.
Don’t accept that.
It’s not unusual for there to be “irregularities” – minor bending and breaking of the rules, or accidental upsets – during standardized tests. However, there seems to have been an uptick in reports of proctors not fulfilling their basic responsibilities, doing things that could cause hundreds of students to score lower or have their scores cancelled. Knowing about this in advance can help you advocate for yourself and protect your score.
With a hat-tip to Mindful Solutions for gathering and relaying some of those reports, here are some things to insist on. At the end is a simple way to head all of this off without having to confront your proctor in the middle of the test.
1. Don’t let the proctor shorten or take away your breaks.
3-4 hours is a long time to spend taking a test. It’s mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing. You need breaks to do your best – even if it feels like you’re on a roll and should continue. This is why every standardized test has specific instructions to proctors about when and how long breaks should be.
Despite those clear instructions, some proctors have taken those breaks away. Take a moment to imagine taking a 3+ hour test with no breaks — just because someone else has decided you should just plow straight through uninterrupted. Does that sound like a good idea to you? If you’re like most people, the answer is a very strong “no”. You understand that the test is tough enough as it is, and the score will be with you for a while. If anything, you need more and longer breaks to do your best. The idea of getting zero breaks in over 3 hours is absurd.
Now, imagine yourself on test day. You’ve just completed the first part of your test, and it has been long. Maybe the first 65-minute Reading section of the SAT, or the first 105 minutes of the ACT (English + Math). Or, if you have extended time, even longer than that. Imagine how you’ll feel by the end. The rules say you should take a break. Good idea, right?
But now imagine your proctor asking everyone in the room whether they want to skip the break and move on to the next section. That way, everyone can finish and leave earlier. Would you take that option to skip the break? If a lot of people in the room voted to skip it, would you stand up for yourself?
We all like to think we would stand up for ourselves, but most of us would have a hard time. Peer pressure is always more powerful than we think it’ll be. Remember how ludicrous the idea of skipping breaks seemed just a moment ago? And yet now, though nothing has changed, we’re not so sure.
As tempting as it might be to power through nonstop and be done – you’re already in the zone anyway, right? – breaks are there for a reason. The benefit of taking them will be with you a lot longer than the insignificant benefit of getting out a few minutes earlier.
Moreover, if no one speaks up when the proctor gives the option, someone might still file a formal complaint later – and that might result in everyone’s scores being cancelled, including yours. Again, the benefits of standing up far outweigh the benefits of staying silent.
If it feels like you’re the only one who wants to speak up, that’s a tough situation to be in. But remember: you’re probably not alone. There’s probably at least one other person in the room who wants the break. In fact, it’s even possible that most people want the break but are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to hold anyone back.
If anyone’s showing a lack of respect, it’s the people who agree to skip the breaks. They’re asking or agreeing to sacrifice everyone’s scores for a few minutes of their time.
This is why it’s so outrageous that a proctor might put breaks up for a vote. The proctor might think they’re being democratic, fair, and generous. Or maybe they’re just trying to catch a few more minutes of freedom for themselves. Either way, what they’re really doing is creating a situation in which many people will make a poor decision that puts everyone’s scores on the line. If this happens during your test, don’t accept it.
2. Don’t let the proctor end a section early.
Even sillier than the idea of taking a 3+ hour test with no breaks is the idea of shortening the sections. Who on earth would want less time to complete the same number and type of questions? If anything, we need more time – not less – to perform at our best.
It’s not just that you have a limited amount of time to do everything. It’s also the psychological pressure of that limited time. Someone is going to make you stop at some point, regardless of whether you’re done. That itself is a source of stress, and that stress itself can reduce your performance.
The time constraint and the stress can even compound each other in a vicious cycle: stress can inhibit your higher thought processes, making you take more time to get things done, which makes it even harder to finish everything in time, which increases your stress level…
But sometimes, the stress can make you take less time. Sometimes that’s because a little bit of stress makes you more efficient. More likely, though, stress makes you take shortcuts and fail to recognize your mistakes. Because stress inhibits higher thinking and reduces self-control, you’re more likely to make mistakes and less likely to pay enough attention to catch and fix them.
The worst part is that we can’t tell whether stress is making us do better or worse. When it’s making us rush and make mistakes, we just think we’re being efficient. We don’t recognize all the mistakes we made until later, after it’s too late.
Remember that test from school that you finished before time was up, and you thought you crushed it, but your grade came back surprisingly low? Now you know what happened.
Back to your standardized test.
Occasionally, everyone in the room will finish a section early. In those cases, proctors will sometimes – against the rules – give everyone the option of ending the section early and moving on to the next thing. This seems to be very common on the PSAT, on which your scores almost never matter. But now, it’s creeping into the SAT and ACT, on which your scores matter a lot.
Compared to the idea of eliminating breaks, it might be a little less obvious why moving on from a section early is a bad idea if everyone’s done. Why make everyone sit there doing nothing for a few more minutes?
Remember this: there are no prizes for finishing earlier. You’ll end up with the same score whether you’re done 10 minutes early or just finishing your last answer when time is called.
There can, however, be a prize in the form of an extra break that you wouldn’t otherwise have had. If you finish early and the section ends at the normal time, you can rest – and maybe even take a short nap. This can reduce your stress and sharpen your mind.
On the flip side, if you get it in your head that you can get out early by working faster, your subconscious mind will try to make you take less time, and fighting it will be extremely difficult. You’ll rush your work and do worse as a result.
As described in the previous section, putting section end times up for a vote might seem generous, but it really just motivates people to make decisions that are bad for everyone. If you think this might happen in your testing room, don’t accept it. Speaking up can be hard, but it’s necessary – especially as a formal complaint from someone else could result in everyone’s scores being cancelled, including yours.
3. Don’t let the proctor tell you to do anything to signal that you’re done.
There’s only one thing that should signal the end of a section, and that’s when time runs out. Period.
The only reason a proctor might ask you to do anything to signal when you’re done – put your head down, raise your hand, etc. – is to commit one of the misdeeds described above.
I’m adding another paragraph here because the shortness of this section might make it seem less important than the others. It’s not. There literally isn’t a reason for a proctor to ask you to signal when you’re done, other than to allow them to mess something up for everyone in the room.
There’s a silver lining here: if a proctor wants to end a section early when everyone says they’re done, and you never give that signal before time is called, that might be a convenient way for you to help keep things running as they should. Even in that case, though, they’ve still created a potentially stressful situation in which you have to decide whether to go along with the crowd. They’ve also limited what you can do if you finish early. What if you finish a section with 5 minutes left, and you want to put your head down to rest for those 5 minutes (as you should), but the proctor has told everyone that putting their heads down was the signal? In that case, they might call time early, shortening your precious extra break. So, do you not put your head down, just to avoid that possibility? You shouldn’t have to make that choice.
Either way, if your proctor asks for your help in bending or breaking the rules, don’t agree.
4. Don’t let the proctor chat with anyone.
Yes, it happens. I dearly wish I were joking but I’ve heard a lot of reports of this lately. It’s outrageous, and the people doing it know it’s outrageous, but they do it anyway.
Funny thing about humans: as long as we’re thinking about how wrong our behavior is, we feel like our behavior isn’t so bad and we should get away with it.
We shouldn’t. They shouldn’t. Don’t let them.
Even More Reasons Proctor Rule-Breaking is Bad
One of the most critical aspects of taking a standardized test – or just about anything – is mental workload. How much are you trying to juggle in your mind, pay attention to, and figure out? How much self-control do you need to do all that? Those things take effort, and stress limits your ability to do them well. That’s why I spend a lot of time with my students working on managing mental workload, informed by my education and research.
The SAT and ACT give you more than enough things to juggle, pay attention to, and figure out. They require more than enough self-control to get through. The last thing you need is for the proctor to add more to your plate. Their job is to make everything run the same way for everyone, and to handle the environment and the time for you so you can focus on your job. They’re supposed to give you less to think about, not more.
Moreover, if the proctor is willing to ask for your help in breaking one rule, it’s hard to imagine they can be trusted in other ways. The moment they ask you to shorten a section, give up your break, or signal when you’re done, they have shown that you can’t trust them not to chat with a colleague or interrupt you in some other way.
What Can You Do About It?
This is the hard part. Most of us are wired not to mess with the person who’s supposed to run the show (in this case, the proctor). We’re also wired to follow peer pressure. This can make it hard to confront a rule-breaking proctor or the students who go along with them.
Fortunately, there’s at least one way to avoid those confrontations.
One is to call or email someone at the test center in advance about your concerns. You can also reach out to the makers of the test (look for the “contact us” page on their website). If you tell them you’ve heard stories about rule violations and don’t want that at your test center, they might help you by reminding everyone involved to follow the rules.
On test day, you can approach your proctor in advance and say something like this:
“Hi. I wanted to ask you about something. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about proctors who end sections early, skip breaks, or allow conversation in the room. That’s against the rules, right?”
It’s important to ask the question as a genuine question, not as a low-key accusation.
What’ll happen when you ask that question? Most likely, they’ll give you a knee-jerk response like, “of course not! We follow all the rules!” In most cases, this will be true; most proctors follow the rules. But even if the proctor turns out to be the type to bend or break the rules, getting them to offer assurances will improve the odds significantly. Why? Because you’ll have reminded them of their duties, you’ll have shown that you’re paying attention, and they’ll have heard themselves promise to follow the rules.
In the off chance the proctor gives you any other answer – a weak-tea promise, or something like “yeah we might shorten the breaks if everyone wants to” – politely request to speak with the supervisor of the test center, and don’t budge until you can raise your concerns with them.
Do you have a story about bad proctoring you’d like to share? Have you successfully confronted a rule-bending proctor and gotten them to follow the rules? Share your experiences on our Facebook page!