Students will be given as much time as they need to complete the state exams this spring, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told lawmakers Wednesday, one of several “major changes” she said are coming to the annual tests.
The department is also considering making the tests shorter and involving teachers more heavily in reviewing the questions, Elia said during an education hearing in Albany. The adjustments come after thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments.
One of that group’s recommendations was for the state to consider untimed exams, noting that parents and teachers say the time limits provoke undue anxiety in students.
“Part of the stresses that we have on kids is that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” Elia said Wednesday. “So if they are working productively then they will be able to continue the assessment.”
In New York, students in grades three to eight take the federally mandated tests in April, with the English and math exams each spread out over three days. Elia told lawmakers at one point that “next year, if possible, we will shorten the days,” though she later made clear that this year’s tests will still take place over a total of six days.
Students are currently given 60 to 90 minutes to complete each day’s test, depending on the subject and the grade level. In recent years, the state has reduced the amount of time each test is designed to last.
State education spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement Wednesday evening that Elia is “moving forward with a plan to allow students who are ‘productively working’ to complete their exams.” The department is working on a guidance document that is will share with schools “shortly,” he added.
New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said Wednesday that she would “totally applaud” the elimination of time limits, which could help alleviate parents’ concerns that students lack “stamina” to finish tests.
“I think that’d be great,” she told reporters after her testimony in Albany. “I would strongly support it.”
The state teachers union, which actively supported the test boycott, was less enthusiastic about the time change.
“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn said in a statement, adding that the tests and learning standards need to be overhauled.
Since the state rolled out new tests in 2013 to match the more rigorous Common Core standards, many parents and educators have complained that students have struggled to complete them within the allotted time. That is especially true for the English exams, where students are expected to repeatedly return to given passages to answer detailed questions.
“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher wrote in an online forum about the 2014 reading tests. “Today the objective was speed.”
A state education department fact sheet says that students who need extra time are given it; however, a manual for administrators suggests that extra time is reserved for English learners or students with disabilities. The fact sheet also says that a 2013 analysis by the department found that the amount of time students were given to complete the tests did not impact their scores.
Elia also said Wednesday that the state is reviewing questions to make sure they are age-appropriate.
Parents opted their children out of state test in record numbers last year, in part to protest the Common Core standards and a new law that upped the weight of state tests in teacher evaluations.
Responding to the backlash, Cuomo convened a Common Core task force that recommended a number of changes assessments, including exploring whether students should have unlimited time on 3-8 ELA and math assessments. Elia served on the task force and presented the task force’s findings to the Board of Regents in December.
This is not the first time a high-ranking education official has floated the idea of untimed tests. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Politico New York last spring that she considered the idea, but abandoned it due to opposition from unnamed advocates.
On Wednesday, Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino asked Elia to assure parents that she will reduce testing.
“When I say we’re going to do something,” she responded, “we’re going to do it.”