TNReady took almost twice as long as Tennessee tests in 2012. Here’s why.

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012. But it’s significantly less than the time scheduled for them last year when the state rolled out its new TNReady assessment. In its first year, TNReady was supposed to take more than 11 hours, though many students never took the whole test after Tennessee canceled it for grades 3-8 due to technical and logistical problems.

Even with this year’s reductions, many teachers are dissatisfied with the amount of time dedicated to testing, which eats out of instructional time and can cause anxiety for teachers and students alike. 

“While Tennessee is just at the beginning of the TNReady experiment, most teachers and parents believe there is too much time spent on testing and test prep,” says a statement by the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Tennessee is part of a nationwide trend toward longer tests, as states move away from purely multiple-choice assessments to ones with questions that are supposed to be better measure student learning — and take more time to answer.

TNReady’s length doesn’t stand out. Indiana students tested a similar amount this year, while other states have much longer testing times. In Colorado, fifth-graders tested for 12.5 hours, and eighth-graders for more than 13.

The shift to longer tests has been propelled in many states by the change to the Common Core standards for math and English. It’s also a byproduct of school and teacher accountability policies built around test scores, making it more important for scores to accurately reflect student learning and not test-taking tricks.

Denver fifth-graders participate in an anti-testing rally at Colorado’s state Capitol in 2014.

But the increase has been accompanied by a growing dissatisfaction with “over-testing,” best represented by the opt-out movement, in which students sit out the federally required annual assessments. While the movement hasn’t gained much traction in Tennessee, it has presented a growing challenge for more than a dozen states.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has convened two task forces to look at testing concerns, leading to this year’s elimination of two state-required tests. Still, leaders with the Tennessee Department of Education say the new normal might be slightly longer tests that can provide better information about student learning, a sentiment echoed by researcher Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California.

“You have to make a choice,” he said. “Do you want to do a reasonably good job of authentically measuring what’s in the standards, in which case teachers will be much more likely to actually teach the standards, and evaluations will be more fair? Or do you want to do something quick and dirty, in which case you’ll be sending the wrong messages of what to teach, but you’ll be intruding on less time?”

Tennessee has opted for the first choice. But spokeswoman Sara Gast emphasizes that the State Department of Education is working to make testing time less disruptive to students and teachers.

Schools can schedule tests throughout three weeks, for instance. Before the switch to TNReady, all testing had to be done in a single week.

In addition, testing sections are supposed to fit into a class period. And teachers don’t have to cover up everything on their walls like they once did.

“Of course, much of the goal of TNReady is also to move away from ‘drill and kill’ and ‘test prep’ practices,” Gast said, “and move more toward the goal of having the state assessment be a natural part of the teaching and learning cycle and something that students are prepared for all year through strong, standards-based instruction.”

In addition to TNReady, the state mandated 14 separate tests this school year, including short diagnostic assessments for its intervention program, called RTI.