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.”

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.

District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.


Most Memphis schools score low on student growth under new state test

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

More than half of Memphis schools received the lowest possible score for student growth on Tennessee’s new test last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest measure, about 54 percent of the district’s 187 schools scored in the bottom rung of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

That includes most schools in the Innovation Zone, a reversal after years of showing high growth in the district’s prized turnaround program.

Charter schools fared poorly as well, as did schools that were deemed among the state’s fastest-improving in 2015.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the scores a “huge wakeup call.”

“It shows that we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Monday. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating. … It starts with making sure we’re supporting teachers around mastering the new standards.”

District leaders across Tennessee have been trying to wrap their heads around the latest growth scores since receiving the data in late August from the State Department of Education. Only two years earlier, the Memphis district garnered the highest possible overall growth score. But since then, the state has switched to a harder test called TNReady that is aligned for the first time to more rigorous academic standards.

TVAAS results are scheduled to be released publicly this week, but Chalkbeat obtained a copy being circulated within Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

The data is prompting questions from some Memphis educators — and assurances from state officials — over the validity of TVAAS, the state’s system for measuring learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools.

This is the first year of issuing district-wide TVAAS scores since 2015. That’s because of the state’s cancellation of 2016 testing for grades 3-8 due mostly to failures in the switch to online testing.

Some educators wonder whether the bumpy switch to TNReady is a factor in this year’s nosedive, along with changes in how the scores are calculated.

For example, data for fourth-graders is missing since there is no prior state testing in third grade for comparison. Elementary and middle schools also don’t have growth scores for social studies, since the 2017 questions were a trial run and the results don’t count toward a school’s score.

Hopson acknowledged concerns over how the state compares results from “two very different tests which clearly are apples and oranges,” but he added that the district won’t use that as an excuse.

“Notwithstanding those questions, it’s the system upon which we’re evaluated on and judged,” he said.

State officials stand by TVAAS. They say drops in proficiency rates resulting from a harder test have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores, since all students are experiencing the same change.

“Because TVAAS always looks at relative growth from year to year, not absolute test scores, it can be stable through transitions,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools is not the only district with disappointing TVAAS results. In Chattanooga, Hamilton County Schools logged low growth scores. But Gast said that more districts earned average or high growth scores of 3, 4 or 5 last school year than happened in 2015.

Want to help us understand this issue? Send your observations to tn.tips@chalkbeat.org

Below is a breakdown of Shelby County’s TVAAS scores. A link to a school-by-school list of scores is at the bottom of this story.


School-wide scores are a combination of growth in each tested subject: literacy, math, science and social studies.

Fifty three schools saw high growth in literacy, an area where Shelby County Schools has doubled down, especially in early grades. And 51 schools saw high growth in math.

Note: A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year. A score of 1 represents significantly lower academic growth compared to peers across the state.


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 101 54%
2 19 10%
3 20 11%
4 10 5%
5 37 20%


School-wide composite Number of schools Percent of schools
1 58 28%
2 16 8%
3 38 19%
4 18 9%
5 75 37%

Innovation Zone

Out of the 23 schools in the district’s program to turn around low-performing schools, most received a growth score of 1 in 2017. That stands in stark contrast to prior years since the program opened in 2012, when most schools were on a fast growth track.

School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 14
2 2
3 2
4 0
5 5

Reward schools

Nearly half of 32 schools deemed 2015 Tennessee reward schools for high growth saw a major drop in TVAAS scores in 2017:

  • Central High
  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Germanshire Elementary
  • KIPP Memphis Middle Academy
  • Kirby High
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary
  • Power Center Academy High
  • Power Center Academy Middle
  • Ross Elementary
  • Sheffield High
  • South Park Elementary
  • Southwind High
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Westside Elementary

Charter schools

Charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools fared similarly to district-run schools in growth scores, with nearly half receiving a TVAAS of 1 compared to 26 percent of charter schools receiving the same score in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 18
2 6
3 7
4 2
5 7


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 10
2 2
3 7
4 3
5 16

Optional schools

Half of the the district’s optional schools, which are special studies schools that require students to test into its programs, received a 1 on TVAAS. That’s compared to just 19 percent in 2015.


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
1 23
2 6
3 5
4 2
5 10


School-wide composite Number of iZone schools
2 5
3 6
4 5
5 14

You can sort through a full list of TVAAS scores for Shelby County Schools here.