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.

Stay updated on New York City education news with our daily and weekly newsletters. Sign up here.

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.”

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Making the grade

TNReady scores are about to go out to Tennessee districts, but not all will make student report cards

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

The State Department of Education will start Monday to distribute the test score data that goes into students’ final report cards, but it won’t arrive in time for every district across the state.

That’s because some districts already have ended their school years, some won’t have time to incorporate TNReady grades before dismissing their students, and some missed the state’s first deadline for turning in testing materials.

“Our timelines for sharing TNReady scores are on track,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said Friday, noting that the schedule was announced last fall. “We have said publicly that districts will receive raw score data back in late May.”

Shelby County Schools is waiting to see when their scores arrive before making a decision. A spokeswoman said Tennessee’s largest district met all testing deadlines, and needs the scores by Monday to tabulate them into final grades. The district’s last day of school is next Friday.

School leaders in Nashville and Kingsport already have chosen to exclude the data from final grades, while Williamson County Schools is delaying their report cards.

A 2015 state law lets districts opt to exclude the data if scores aren’t received at least five instructional days before the end of the school year.

TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of this year’s final grades. As part of the transition to TNReady, the weight gradually will rise to between 15 and 25 percent (districts have flexibility) as students and teachers become more familiar with the new test.

The first wave of scores are being sent just weeks after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declared this year’s testing a “success,” both on paper and online for the 24 districts that opted to test high school students online this year. Last year, Tennessee had a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

Tennessee test scores have been tied to student grades since 2011, but this is the first year that the state used a three-week testing window instead of two. Gast said the added time was to give districts more flexibility to administer their tests. But even with the added week, this year’s timeline was consistent with past years, she said.

Once testing ended on May 5, school districts had five days to meet the first deadline, which was on May 10, to return those materials over to Questar, the state’s new Minneapolis-based testing company.

School officials in Nashville said that wasn’t enough time.

“Due to the volume of test documents and test booklets that we have to account for and process before return for scoring, our materials could not be picked up before May 12,” the district said in a statement on Thursday.

Because districts turned in their testing materials at different times, the release of raw scores, will also be staggered across the next three weeks, Gast said.