eyes on the clock

Why New York’s switch to untimed tests might not matter (and why teachers aren’t so sure)

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

When a test proctor signals that it is the last few minutes of an exam, chances are some students will begin to scramble.

That dynamic, educators say, prevents students from demonstrating their true skills on the state’s annual reading and math tests. One New York City teacher even made that argument to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s testing task force last fall.

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Last month, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia signaled that she agreed. She announced that students will have all the time they need to complete state exams this spring, as long as they are “productively working.”

While the move failed to impress leaders of New York’s strong parent anti-testing movement, it appears to be resonating more with educators, who say students will do better when they don’t feel crunched for time.

“My students get so frustrated when they don’t finish the exam,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, a special education language arts teacher at New Heights Middle School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “Anything we can do to ease the pressure and make them feel comfortable,” she added, “can go a long way for how they feel and perform.”

But in other parts of the country, untimed standardized tests are not new or unusual. Researchers who study testing and the experiences of other states suggest that doing away with time limits is unlikely to have a substantial effect on student performance or state of mind.

“We started to administer untimed tests about 20 years ago,” said Jeff Wulfson, the deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’ department of elementary and secondary education. “We decided to give students as much time as they need to demonstrate what they know.”

California, Missouri, and a handful of other states have also administered untimed tests for over a decade. That makes sense, because state tests typically do not require time limits to get useful information about students’ skills, according to researchers who study test design.

Andrew Porter, the former dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, says tests can be classified as “speeded” or “power” tests. Most state tests are “power” tests constructed to give students enough time to show what they know, he said.

Indeed, responsible test producers pilot questions in advance so they put together an exam that most students can complete in the allotted time, according to Doug McRae, a retired psychometrician at McGraw-Hill, which produces tests for multiple states. McRae created both timed and untimed tests and said he found that unlimited time fundamentally has no effect on a student’s score.

The transition to the Common Core reset some of that careful calibration. During the first year of Common Core testing in New York, many educators said the state’s exams asked students to do too much in too little time.

Teachers have argued that time limits on state tests undermine the goals of the Common Core standards, which require student to conduct thorough analyses of texts to form arguments about elements such as author’s purpose or theme. But with the the time allotted for testing, students are only able to graze the surface of passages, some teachers say.

Katumuluwa weaves pacing recommendations into her lessons to help students remember that time is a factor. “I’ll remind them to read the passage at a pace that gives them the right amount of time to get through the questions,” she said.

And a number of her students in special education, who receive double-time, work up to the last minute. “Unlimited time is even a better option than double-time,” said Katumuluwa. “It would eliminate the crunch and put my students at ease. Plus, they would get the chance to actually check their work or give tougher problems a second try.”

But McRae said other forces are at play when it comes to anxiety. “The pressure students experience comes less from the fact that the test is timed and more from the kind of pressure they experience from the stakes that are at risk,” he said. “They know the tests are being used to qualify them for graduation and for various programs.”

City and state officials in New York have also moved to reduce the consequences of state test scores. The scores won’t factor into teachers’ official evaluations for years, and New York City has stopped holding students back on the basis of test scores alone.

That leaves some educators believing that the greatest impact of the timing change might be on the way testing days work.

“This elimination of timing is going to create a logistical nightmare for the school administration and distractions for those taking the test while others zip through and become restless,” city teacher Madalaina Balzano-Vellucci wrote on Facebook.

The logistical issues cut both ways, said Wulfson, the education official in Massachusetts. Some districts there just completed field testing rounds of PARCC, a timed test aligned to the Common Core standards.

“We are experimenting with timed tests now,” Wulfson said. “We’ve received mixed feedback. A lot of our educators are pleased that it took less time and that instruction didn’t need to completely stop, while others felt some pressure because timed tests aren’t something we are used to.” But most students reported having enough time to finish the test, he said.

In New York, some teachers believe the benefits of untimed tests outweigh the costs.

“The testing time provided is out of touch with our kids. The allotted time only serves a small population of our students,” said Katumuluwa.

And she said doing away with the dreaded end-of-test countdown could pay off in ways unconnected to students’ scores.

“While timing isn’t the only issue with these tests, our students will see that we are trying to work with them,” she said. “They will see it as an opportunity to make it through.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County