Published Online: October 30, 2012

First Person

Off the Clock: Giving Students More Time to Demonstrate Learning

Recently, a distressed mom asked me for advice about how to help her smart, hard-working daughter who is struggling in school. Her daughter has always been a poor reader and the mother suspects that she is dyslexic. Better than average grades, however, have prevented the daughter from qualifying for school testing to see if she has a disability. As a high school sophomore, some of her struggles are related to staying on top of the volume of work she is assigned, but many of the snags that she is hitting are related to not having enough time to express what she knows during assessments. Without a diagnosis, she doesn’t qualify for extra time on tests, and pursuing an independent evaluation is not possible because of the expensive price tag.

This student is caught in an academic limbo that traps many. As educators, we are deluding ourselves if we think that everyone who is deserving of a diagnosis is able to obtain one.

There are a variety of reasons students don’t get tested, including well-meaning parents’ resistance to labels and misunderstandings about how and why testing is needed. Many such obstacles point to limited resources—a school’s or a family’s. In private schools, internal testing is rarely offered. Families must bear the burden of the financial costs of independent testing. Meanwhile, in public schools, internal testing is offered, but students have to be failing in order to qualify. Simply put, the roadblocks to testing and diagnosis are everywhere, and struggling students are paying a steep and unnecessary price.

Which raises the question: Why should students have to fail in order to get the support they need to reach their potential?

'A False Metric'

The current system of supporting students in an equitable manner is broken in our schools. To me, the most obvious manifestation of that breakdown is reflected in the way time is handled.

How did teachers ever come to rationalize cutting students off before they had ample time to express their understanding of a subject? How did we, as educators, allow a two-tier system to spring up that lets students with parent advocates, enlightened schools, or family means gain access to a basic educational accommodation that is denied students who have the same need but can’t get or afford a diagnosis?

I’m unaware of research that supports the idea that educators learn anything additional about students’ depth or breadth of knowledge by measuring how quickly they can recall answers or express what they have learned. There are many things that cause one student to finish an assessment faster than another, and it is not always influenced by mastery (with the exception of something like a math-facts quiz).

If we know that time limits are a false metric, why do we utilize them? While some might argue that it is a necessary evil in terms of scheduling and administration, it’s important to consider carefully the toll these false measurements take. At the very least, teachers should always be clear about what specific educational objective is being measured by enforcing time limitations on an assessment.

The truth is, once students leave school, it rarely matters how long they spend on a project—what matters is how well they do the job. Did their work meet or exceed expectations? Did they meet the deadline? They will likely not be asked, "Did it take you two hours or four hours to prepare for that presentation, or to write that draft or research that problem?" Individuals are evaluated on the quality of their work. As teachers, we all recognize that certain thinkers take more time to process information, even if we are not always sure of the underlying causes. Penalizing students for slow speed is counterproductive.

As a secondary history and English teacher, I have been responsible for creating and administering many tests. I’m often unsure about how long those tests are going to take my class. Test creation is not an exact science, particularly in connection with individual students. I always hope that I have created a test that provides students with ample time. However, I do not penalize my slower students when my judgment in this regard is flawed. I make sure that all my students get the time they need—and it doesn’t require special status.

It’s very simple: Students should get access to the time they need to express what they know. If they regularly need extra time, then the school should consider an evaluation, rather than the other way around.

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