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The Influence of a Time Limit and Bilingualism on Scholastic Assessment Test Performance

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The purpose of the present study was to explore the influence of bilingualism and a time limit on Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) performance. Participants were randomly divided into two groups: a time limit group and a no time limit group. Both groups completed an SAT math and critical reading practice test. One group completed the tests under the specified time limit as directed by the SAT developers; while the other group completed the tests without any specified time limits. Bilingualism was quantified by self-reported estimates of how long the second language had been practiced, how often the second language had been used, and self estimate of skill level in that language. A time limit adversely influenced math but not critical reading performance. Bilingualism adversely influenced critical reading performance but not math performance. A time limit had a stronger deleterious effect on bilinguals than monolinguals math but not critical reading performance.
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________________________________
Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Michael A. DeDonno, Dept.
of Psychology, Barry University, 11300 NE Second Avenue, Miami Shores,
Florida U.S.A. 33161. E-mail: mdedonno@mail.barry.edu
North American Journal of Psychology, 2014, Vol. 16, No. 2, 211-224.
NAJP
The Influence of a Time Limit and Bilingualism
on Scholastic Assessment Test Performance
Michael A. DeDonno & Karla Rivera-Torres
Barry University
Ann Monis
PA, Hollywood, FL
Joseph F. Fagan
Case Western Reserve University
The purpose of the present study was to explore the influence of
bilingualism and a time limit on Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)
performance. Participants were randomly divided into two groups: a time
limit group and a no time limit group. Both groups completed an SAT
math and critical reading practice test. One group completed the tests
under the specified time limit as directed by the SAT developers; while
the other group completed the tests without any specified time limits.
Bilingualism was quantified by self reported estimates of how long the
second language had been practiced, how often the second language had
been used, and self estimate of skill level in that language. A time limit
adversely influenced math but not critical reading performance.
Bilingualism adversely influenced critical reading performance but not
math performance. A time limit had a stronger deleterious effect on
bilinguals than monolinguals math but not critical reading performance.
Approximately 20% of the US population speaks a language other than
English with the rate increasing to 48% in New York City and 60% in Los
Angeles (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Bilingualism in Europe is even more
prevalent with approximately 56% of the population across all European
Union countries being bilingual (European Commission, 2006). From
1980 to 2009, the number of school-age children (5-17 years old) in the
United States speaking a language other than English at home increased
from 4.7 to 11.2 million (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).
With the increase of Latin American students in the United States
education system, it is important to determine the role of bilingualism on
academic achievement (Bialystok, 2011). While the advantages of
bilingualism have been well documented (Bialystok, 2009; García-
Vázquez, Vázquez, & López, 1997), disadvantages of bilingualism have
212 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
equally been documented (Bialystok & Depape, 2009; Gollan, Bonanni,
& Montoya, 2005). The purpose of the present study was to explore the
relationship between bilingualism and Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)
performance. Taken by more than two million students every year, the
SAT is required by many institutions as part of the college application
process (The College Board, 2011).
Bilingualism defined. People may be considered bilingual in many
ways: 1) people who speak, read, and write fluently in two languages; 2)
people who speak, read, and write in one language, but can only speak the
second language; and 3) speak, read, and write in one language, but
understand to some extent a second language (Romaine, 1995). Valdés and
Figueroa (1994) define simultaneous bilinguals as people who have
acquired a first and second language at the same time. Sequential bilinguals
are people who acquire their second language after the first language was
acquired. Circumstantial bilinguals are those that must learn a second
language due to living circumstances in order to survive, such as immigrants
living in the United States. Elective bilinguals are people who choose to
become bilingual, but do not need the second language in order to live, such
as college students taking a foreign language course.
Research finds that individuals need at least five years of language
experience to develop problem solving ability in the language (Cummins,
1981). Regular use of both languages is also necessary for bilingual
development (Grosjean, 1992). Further, language ability can be
influenced by the individual’s perceived ability in speaking the second
language. Bandura (1993) postulates that performance is optimized when
the individual has a high degree of self confidence in their ability. For
the purpose of the present study, bilingualism is defined as the regular
use of a second language for at least five years, and a perceived skill
level of advanced.
Advantages of Bilingualism. Researchers who advocate learning a
foreign language suggest bilingualism enhances cognitive ability
(Bialystok, Craik, & Freedman, 2007). Studies have shown that children,
adults, and older adults who are lifelong bilinguals and speak both
languages on a daily basis show higher levels of executive control
compared to monolinguals (Bialystok & Depape, 2009). Speaking more
than one language may even delay the onset of dementia (Bialystok et al.,
2007). Learning two languages seems to enhance mental flexibility and
superior concept formation (Garcia-Vázquez et al., 1997). The
mechanisms for these underlying phenomena are yet to be determined,
but the management of multiple language systems seems to yield
cognitive benefits (Bialystok & Depape, 2009).
A meta-analysis conducted by Adesope, Lavin, Thompson, and
Ungerleider (2010) revealed that bilingualism is dependent on several
DeDonno, Rivera-Torres, Monis, & Fagan SAT PERFORMANCE 213
cognitive activities such as attentional control, working memory,
metalinguistic awareness, and abstract and symbolic representation skills.
Evidence has suggested that the regular use of two languages requires
attentional control of the target language. Bialystok and Martin (2004)
found that adults who have been bilingual since childhood are better at
managing attention while performing tasks that involve cognitive control.
Researchers have also found that bilinguals possess superior
metalinguistic awareness (Bialystok, Majumder, & Martin, 2003;
Campbell & Sais, 1995; Galambos & Hakuta, 1988), metacognitive
awareness (Kemp, 2007), abstract or symbolic reasoning, creative and
divergent thinking (Ricciardelli, 1992), and problem solving (Bialystok,
1999). The bilingual’s sense of metalinguistic awareness affects
performance in noncritical reading tests. Presumably, bilingualism
fosters a precocious use of critical reading mediation in the processing of
information. Bilinguals are better able to use language as a tool to
monitor cognitive functioning by increasing their capacity to memorize
information and control more effectively the different steps in problem
solving.
Disadvantages of Bilingualism. There is evidence that bilingualism
can be detrimental to cognitive functioning (Bialystok & Depape, 2009;
Gollan et al., 2005). Bilinguals maintain a smaller vocabulary in each
language than do monolinguals (Bialystok, 2009). Bilinguals have lower
scores than monolinguals on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test
(Bialystok & Depape, 2009). Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals
name fewer objects using standardized measures of picture naming such
as the Boston Naming Test (Gollan et al., 2005). Ivanova and Costa
(2008) found bilinguals named pictures slower than monolinguals, both
when the bilinguals named the picture in their dominant language and
their weaker second language. Bilinguals show more tip-of-the-tongue
states when retrieving names of picture objects or low-frequency words
when given the definitions. Bilinguals tend to have difficulty in
producing a well-known word or a person’s name when feeling the recall
is imminent (Gollan et al., 2005). Bilinguals also experience more
interference in lexical decisions (Ransdell & Fischler, 1987).
Rodriguez-Fornells, Lugt, Rotte, Britti, Heinze, and Münte, (2005)
found that bilinguals have difficulty in creating effective mechanisms to
prevent interference from their native language when using their second
language. Interference of phonological information from the non-target
language in German-Spanish bilinguals was inferred from event-related
brain potentials and functional magnetic resonance imaging. These
findings suggest that bilingualism causes an increased processing load on
the language production system.
214 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
Time Limits and Bilingualism. Research has found that bilinguals
tend to struggle when pressed for time (Blumenthal, Britt, Cohen,
McCubbin, Maxfield, & Michael, et al., 2006; Gollan, Montoya,
Fennema-Notestine & Morris, 2005; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).
Ganushchak and Schiller (2009) asked German-Dutch bilinguals to
perform a phoneme-monitoring task in Dutch with and without time
pressure. The obtained error-related negativity (ERN) showed an atypical
increase in amplitude under time pressure. The time pressure participants
had more interference from their native language leading to a greater
response conflict. The results suggest that error-related negativity is
sensitive to psycholinguistic manipulations. It would appear that the
functioning of the critical reading self-monitoring system during
speaking is comparable to other performance monitoring, such as action
monitoring. This explanation is due to the result that participants under
time pressure had more interference from their native language, thus
leading to a greater response conflict and enhancing the amplitude of the
error-related negativity (Ganushchak & Schiller, 2009).
Bilinguals require more time to respond during a variety of picture
naming tasks (Gollan et al., 2005; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007). Time
pressure has also been identified as a stressor that affects the job
performance of bilingual language professionals (Blumenthal et al.,
2006). Bilinguals also tend to produce more tip-of-the-tongue and fewer
correct responses in timed critical reading fluency tests even when tested
in their primary language (Gollan et al., 2005). Researchers found
performance on the Wonderlic Personnel Test to be hindered when
students completed the test in their second language and under a time
limit (Mullane & McKelvie, 2001). Francis, Tokowicz, and Kroll (2013),
found a negative association between bilingual proficiency and response
time (RT) on a vocal task. That is, more proficient bilinguals had shorter
RTs than did less proficient bilinguals when translating words from their
preferred language to their second language. Gollan and colleagues
(2005) believed that since bilinguals perform differently in various test
environments, separate normative data should be developed for bilinguals
to prevent diagnostic error.
Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The Scholastic Assessment Test
(SAT) is a globally recognized college admission test. Taken by more
than two million students every year, it is required by many institutions
as part of the college application process (The College Board, 2011).
The SAT takes three hours and 45 minutes to complete. The test consists
of 10 separately timed sections: three sections testing critical reading (70
minutes total), three sections testing mathematics (70 minutes), three
sections testing writing (60 minutes), and one variable (un-scored)
section test of either critical reading, mathematics, or writing (25
DeDonno, Rivera-Torres, Monis, & Fagan SAT PERFORMANCE 213
minutes). Possible scores on each part of the SAT range from 200 to 800.
In any given year, the standard score is set at 500 with a standard
deviation of approximately 100.
There have typically been racial/ethnic differences in test
performance. In 2010, the mean critical reading score for Whites was
528, while Asian/Pacific Islanders had a mean score of 454. Hispanics
had a mean score of 452, and Blacks had a mean score of 429. The mean
mathematics score for Asian/Pacific Islanders was 591 while Whites had
a mean score of 536, Hispanics had a mean score of 462 and Blacks had
a mean score of 428 (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).
The value of the SAT can be found in its ability to predict first year
college success. Corrected for restriction in range and criterion
unreliability, the relationship between freshman grade point average
(GPA) and SAT Math/Critical reading performance is correlated (r = .57)
(Pearson, 1993).
Time Limit and the SAT. Time allocations for the SAT are
determined based on the findings that students answer 50 to 60 percent of
the questions correctly and 80% finish nearly the entire test. In addition,
almost all the students complete at least 75% of the questions (The
College Board, 2011). The SAT along with many other standardized tests
such as the American College Test (ACT), Graduate Record
Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT),
and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), offer various
accommodations to students. The most common accommodation
requested by students, typically those with learning disabilities, is
extended time (Camara, Copeland, & Rothschild, 1998). Current research
suggests that extended time on the SAT does not change the construct of
the test (Lindstrom & Gregg, 2007). This means that if more time was
allocated on the test, the difficulty of the test would remain the same.
However, Kellogg, Hopko, and Ashcraft (1999) found time limits caused
students to underperform on standardized tests.
The Present Study. The purpose of the present study was to explore
the influence of bilingualism and a time limit on SAT math and critical
reading performance. The SAT math and critical reading tests were used
due to their popularity and importance in the college application process.
It is possible that time limits may adversely influence bilingual student
performance. It is also possible that regardless of a time limit,
bilingualism may enhance or worsen SAT performance.
Three hypotheses were tested. First, a time limit will adversely
influence SAT math and critical reading test performance. Second,
bilinguals will underperform monolinguals on SAT math and critical
reading test performance. Finally, we hypothesize that a time limit will
216 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
have a stronger impact on bilinguals than monolinguals on SAT math
and critical reading test performance.
METHOD
Participants were undergraduate students attending a private southern
United States university enrolled in psychology courses. One hundred
and eighteen participants (97 women, 21 men) with a mean age of 20.23
(SD = 2.022, range: 18-28) participated in the experiment. Four
participants identified themselves as American Indian / Alaska Native, 57
as Black, 32 as Hispanic, and 25 as White.
The present study included a large display digital timer, SAT math
and critical reading practice tests, and a self-reporting bilingualism and
demographic questionnaire. The tests were paper-and-pencil based and
taken from an SAT preparation book (Gruber, 2005). Participants were
randomly divided into two groups; a time limit group and a no time limit
group. The time limit was based on instructions provided by the SAT
preparation book (Gruber, 2005). The math practice test included 20
questions with a 25 minute time limit. The critical reading test included
35 questions with a 25 minute time limit. The time limit group
participants were informed of the time limit and a large digital timer was
placed on a desk in the front of the classroom. The no time limit group
was instructed to complete each test without a time limit. The math and
critical reading tests were counterbalanced to mitigate order effects.
After the completion of the tests, participants in both groups completed
the Likert-type demographics questionnaire. To gauge bilingualism, the
questionnaire included three items: how long they have known a second
language with response options ranging from 0 (N/A) to 6 (entire life),
daily use of second language ranging from 0 (N/A) to 9 (90-100% of
time), and perceived skill level of second language ranging from 0 (N/A)
to 5 (fluent, as well as first language). Results for each of the three items
were totaled to generate a bilingualism score which ranged from 0 to 20.
The questionnaire also included items pertaining to age, ethnicity,
citizenship, family income, and parental education. The parental
education values ranged from 1(no formal education) to 7 (graduate
degree). The parental education variable and reported family income
value were used to determine participant’s socioeconomic status (SES).
The tests and the questionnaire were distributed in a paper format and
completed in a group setting in a standard classroom.
RESULTS
There were no gender, racial, or ethnic differences in performance on
either the SAT math or critical reading tests. Further, socioeconomic
status (SES) did not have an effect on math or critical reading test
DeDonno, Rivera-Torres, Monis, & Fagan SAT PERFORMANCE 213
performance. The sum of the three bilingual items was used to identify
participants as bilingual or not bilingual. This measure of bilingualism
was found to be reliable (α = .88). There were 59 participants who spoke
a second language for at least five years, on a daily basis, and perceived
their second language ability to be at least advanced. Within the bilingual
group, 27 (45.8%) identified English as their first language, 19 (32.2%)
identified Spanish, 5 (8.5%) identified French / Creole, and 8 (13.6%)
identified Other. Relating to second language, 25 (42.4%) identified
English, 22 (37.3%) identified Spanish, 6 (10.2%) identified French /
Creole and 6 (10.2%) identified Other. Within the bilingual group, there
were no significant differences in performance on the math or critical
reading tests regardless if English was their first or second language.
Therefore, we did not differentiate the bilingual group for any of the
following analyses.
Exploratory analyses revealed a significant difference between class
and critical reading performance, F(3, 113) = 4.191, p = .007. Post-hoc
analysis using Least Squared Difference (LSD) revealed significant
differences (p < .05) between freshman vs. junior, and freshman vs.
senior on critical reading performance. Specifically, juniors (M = 14.862,
SD = 3.493) and seniors (M = 16.621, SD = 2.984) performed
significantly better on the critical reading test than the freshman (M =
12.822, SD = 3.383) students. Interestingly, there were no differences in
performance between class and math test performance. Regardless of
school status, sophomore, junior and seniors did no better on the math
test than the freshman students. Table 1 provides details to math and
reading performance based on bilingualism and time limit.
TABLE 1 Math and Reading Performance
Math Reading
Time No Time Time No Time
Limit Limit Total Limit Limit Total
Bilingual M = 5.44 7.77 6.61 12.8 14.04 13.42
SD = 2.98 3.48 3.40 2.83 4.05 3.47
Not Bilingual M = 6.98 6.98 6.98 15.82 14.86 15.34
SD = 2.62 3.01 2.75 3.78 3.39 3.62
Total M = 6.21 7.37 14.31 14.49
SD = 2.87 3.27 3.60 3.73
Note: Math score out of 20 possible points. Reading score out of 35 possible points
A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to
explore the influence of bilingualism and a time limit on SAT
performance. The dependent variables included math and critical reading
218 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
test performance. The independent variables included condition (time
limit, no time limit) and bilingualism (bilingual, not bilingual). Class was
included as a covariate due to its association with test performance.
Using Pillai’s trace, there was not a significant effect of condition on
test performance, V = .036, F(2, 111) = 2.087, p = .129. There was a
significant effect of bilingualism on test performance, V = .076, F(2, 111)
= 4.584, p = .012, η
2
= .076. Finally, there was a trend towards
significance of condition and bilingualism on test performance V = .051,
F(2, 111) = 2.986, p = .055.
There was a significant main effect of condition on math test
performance F(1,117) = 4.158, p = .044, η
2
= .036. The no time limit
group (M = 7.374, SD = 3.268) performed significantly better than the
time pressure group (M = 6.211, SD = 2.869). Condition did not have an
effect on critical reading test performance.
There was a significant main effect of bilingualism on critical reading
test performance F(1,117) = 9.251, p = .003, η
2
= .076. The monolingual
group (M = 15.341, SD = 3.620) performed significantly better than the
bilingual group (M = 13.422, SD = 3.466). Bilingualism did not have an
effect on math test performance.
There was a significant interaction effect between condition and
bilingualism on math test performance F(1,117) = 4.262, p = .041, η
2
=
.037. The no time limit bilingual group performed best (M = 7.774, SD =
3.484) followed by the no time limit monolingual group (M = 6.975, SD
= 3.008), then the time limit monolingual group (M = 6.983, SD = 2.622)
and finally the time limit bilingual group (M = 5.440, SD = 2.980).
Although trending towards significance, there was no significant
interaction effect between condition and bilingualism on critical reading
test performance F(1,117) = 3.076, p = .082, η
2
= .027.
DISCUSSION
The present study explored the influence of bilingualism and a time
limit on SAT performance. With respect to the first hypothesis, a time
limit had a negative effect on math performance but not critical reading
performance. The decreased math performance is consistent with past
research (Kellogg et al., 1999). The conscious thought of the time limit
can consume cognitive space, resulting in a reduction of available
processing needed for problem solving (Evans, Handely, & Bacon,
2009). A reduction in cognitive space can slow a participants’ problem
solving activities resulting in an incomplete task. To determine if the
variance in performance was due to incomplete tasks, we reviewed the
completion rates of the time limit group. Results revealed no significant
difference in test completion between the time limit and no time limit
DeDonno, Rivera-Torres, Monis, & Fagan SAT PERFORMANCE 213
groups. Similar to the no time limit group, nearly 80% of the time limit
group completed the test in its entirety.
A second potential cause for the variance in math performance could
be the time limit group using simpler and less effective problem solving
strategies resulting in degraded performance. Beilock and DeCaro (2007)
found participants under pressure used simpler problem solving strategies
on multistep math problems, resulting in poorer performance. This
behavior may also explain why the time limit did not influence critical
reading task performance. Performance on critical reading tasks is
typically based on vocabulary knowledge which does not require
multistep problem solving strategies. Rather, it is based on the individual
knowing the definition or “meaning” of the word. In this case, a time
limit may not have as strong an impact on performance
Finally, the decreased performance could be due to the sample size
being predominately female (82.2%). Research finds that the stereotype
threat of “women being bad at math” can influence performance on math
tasks (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999). Beilock (2008) found when
women were aware of the stereotype threat, effort on complex math
problems was diminished. This stereotype threat may be inhibiting
performance on the more difficult problems in the time limit group due to
a potential interaction of the stereotype threat and pressure felt by the
time limit. Future research could explore the association between
bilingualism, time limits and item difficulty on standardized testing
performance.
With respect to the second hypothesis, bilingualism had a negative
effect on critical reading test performance but not math performance.
This result is consistent with past research demonstrating that bilinguals
underperform on various reading tasks (Bialystok & Depape, 2009;
Gollan et al., 2005). This underperformance may be due in part to the
bilingual participants language proficiency. The threshold hypothesis
emphasizes bilingual disadvantages being due to low language
proficiency (Cummins, 1979). It posits that reading performance is
particularly hampered when the bilingual individual has deficits in both
languages. In other words, the bilingual individual speaks two languages,
but is not highly proficient in either language.
With respect to the third hypothesis, a time limit had a stronger
impact on bilingual’s math performance than non-bilinguals math
performance. Researchers find time limits adversely impact math
performance (Kellogg et al., 1999). In multistep problems such as math,
pressure appears to harm performance by overloading the working
memory capacity system (Beilock & Carr, 2005). For example Beilock
and DeCaro (2007) found an association between pressure and working
memory capacity on test performance. Specifically, individuals high in
220 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
working memory capacity were able to effectively solve simple problems
regardless of pressure being high or low. However, as the complexity of
the problems increased, individuals high in working memory capacity
made more errors under the high pressure condition.
Researchers also find that time pressure negatively impacts a
bilingual’s cognitive functioning (Gollan et al., 2005; Kaushanskaya &
Marian, 2007). Specifically, bilingualism can burden the working
memory system (van den Noort, Bosch, & Hugdahl, 2006). It is generally
believed that working memory is a limited capacity system where
resources are shared between processing and storage. Any increase in
processing can degrade task performance (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974).
Specific to math problem solving, reduced cognitive resources can make
it difficult to form an appropriate problem representation, identify needed
information, and check progress toward the solution (Walczyk &
Griffith-Ross, 2006). Essentially, the reduced performance of the
bilingual participants under a time limit may be due to an overload of the
working memory capacity system. Future research could integrate the
findings from the present study with the research conducted by Beilock
and DeCaro (2007), and explore the influence of time limits and
bilingualism on working memory capacity.
The finding that a time limit adversely affected bilinguals’ SAT
performance is significant. It provides evidence that some of the variance
in SAT performance between monolinguals and bilinguals may be related
to the testing environment. College acceptance committees may want to
consider bilingual status when reviewing SAT scores of prospective
students.
A strength of the research is its generality to the broader ethnic
population which lies in the diversity of the present sample (17% White,
50% Black, 29% Hispanic and 4% American Indian/Alaskan Native).
Some limitations of the research should be noted. There were a limited
number of male participants (18%) and only undergraduate students from
a private, Southern university were included in the research. In addition,
we did not differentiate the bilingual group based on English being their
first or second language.
In summary, the present study indicates that a time limit has a
stronger deleterious effect on SAT math performance among bilinguals
when compared to monolinguals. The importance of capturing a
student’s true abilities is integral to academic success. By better
understanding what variables influence SAT performance, it may be
possible to devise educational testing processes that mitigate variables
that negatively impact test performance. From a practical standpoint,
college acceptance committees may want to include a student’s bilingual
status when considering SAT scores.
DeDonno, Rivera-Torres, Monis, & Fagan SAT PERFORMANCE 213
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NOTES: Joseph Fagan passed away during the final stages of this research. Dr.
Fagan became a full professor in 1978 at Case Western Reserve University and
served as chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences from 1990 until
1995. He received the endowed Leffingwell Professor of Psychology title in
1990 and was named a fellow of the American Psychological Society. In 2009,
Fagan received the Mensa Education and Research Foundation Award for
Excellence in Research for his study of how an infant becomes an intelligent,
achieving adult. We will miss his friendship, expertise, and positive influence.
Research supported by NIH NIGMS MARC Grant T34GM008021, Barry
University.
224 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
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