Student Achievement What the Research Says

Want to Boost Students’ Focus During Tests? Check the Time of Day

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 13, 2024 3 min read
Illustration of test items on a flat surface, including test booklet, test sheets, pencils, eraser and pencil sharpener.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Testing is about more than just knowing the content. Illness, weariness, anxiety, and boredom can all distract students and undercut their performance on tests. A new study suggests proper timing can make a big difference in whether students accurately show what they know and can do.

Formative assessments can be more important in guiding instruction than high-stakes standardized tests.

“In the case of low-stakes assessments, I would recommend testing in the morning,” said Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist for the Collaborative for Student Growth at the testing group NWEA and the study author. “In lunchtime and early afternoon, there does seem to be a slump.”

Kuhfeld and other researchers from the assessment group NWEA tracked students’ distraction during testing on a commonly used adaptive benchmarking test. First, they gauged how frequently students simply guessed at answers by looking at how quickly students completed each question and how that pace changed over the course of the test. Second, they scored the first and second half of the tests separately, to measure how sharply performance dropped toward the end of the test.

Students were deemed “disengaged” if the second half of their test performance dropped significantly from their first half, or if 10 percent or more of their questions had been answered too quickly for the student to have read and understood what was being asked.

Researchers marked the start time for more than a half million of the computer-adaptive MAP Growth assessments in reading and math taken by students in grades 2-8. Each test ran about 45 minutes to an hour, and schools administered about two-thirds of the tests studied in the morning.

Kuhfeld and her colleagues found students whose tests started at 7 a.m. guessed at less than 3 percent of questions on average. By contrast, rapid guessing rose sharply after noon, and students whose math tests started at 1 p.m. guessed at 8.5 percent of questions, nearly triple the guessing rate of morning tests, “which would also indicate that they’re probably not giving their full effort for the latter half of the test,” Kuhfeld said. Rapid guessing also nearly doubled in reading, from 8.5 percent for 7 a.m. tests to 15.5 percent for 1 p.m. tests.

The pattern held for students across achievement levels, though the lowest-achievement students were the most likely to become disengaged during a test. Overall performance declines held steady across testing times, with students’ performance dropping about 3 percent in math and 4 percent in reading over the course of the test.

Students in middle school grades were more likely to disengage during tests than students in early grades, regardless of the time of day. But “younger kids’ context matters more,” Kuhfeld said, “in that the more tired they are, the more they’re going to disengage. Younger kids would be more likely to give their full effort if being tested at a time that is well suited for them.”

Many elementary schools, such as Tillford Elementary in Vinton, Iowa, already schedule the most academically strenuous classes—like a long literacy block—first thing in the morning.

Boys also had higher disengagement than girls, and students were slightly more likely to remain focused during math than reading tests.

See Also

Photo of teenage boy turning off alarm clock
iStock / Getty Images Plus

It’s not clear, however, whether students’ attention is more related to the overall time students have been in school or the time of day. For example, while this study looked only at elementary and middle schools, prior studies have found high school students’ test performance can improve when their schools start later in the morning—in keeping with adolescents’ later circadian cycles.

Kuhfeld said future studies will control for the amount of time students have been in school as well as the test start time; for example, the difference between a student starting a test at 8:30 when their school starts at 8 a.m. or 7 a.m.

If educators do need to assess students after lunch, incorporating brief stretches or other cognitive breaks may help return students’ focus.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Achievement Opinion Does 'Grading for Equity' Result in Lower Standards?
Equitable grading doesn’t call for heightened leniency, says the author of a book on the subject.
11 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Whitepaper
Secrets to Mastering Successful High-Impact Tutoring for Unparalleled Results
A collection of essential questions and reflections exploring the intricacies of implementing high-impact tutoring, its significance, key...
Content provided by BookNook
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Whitepaper
Strategies for Sustaining High-impact Tutoring Post-ESSER
This white paper identifies 13 strategies to sustain high-impact tutoring beyond the expiration of federal emergency funds.
Content provided by Saga Education
Student Achievement How In-School Tutoring Benefits Both Attendance and Math Scores
The connection between better test scores, tutoring, and attendance is bolstered by two new studies.
4 min read
Tight crop of a photo showing an elementary aged hand doing work in an exercise book with an adult hand pointing to the page.