For States, Question Is: To Time Tests or Not?

By Liana Loewus — February 23, 2016 6 min read
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Among the chief complaints that educators and parents have had about standardized testing is that it puts too much pressure on young students.

The testing battle has been particularly fraught in New York state, where as many as 20 percent of 3rd through 8th grade students opted out of common-core tests last spring. To ease anxiety about the process, the education commissioner last month announced that, starting this year, standardized tests would no longer have time limits.

But some psychometricians say that move is dead wrong—that ending time limits will take time away from teaching, cause logistical headaches for schools, and make the process longer and more frustrating for test-anxious students. And, according to research, it won’t actually help students perform any better.

“It’s a giant policy mistake for New York to do this,” said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “You’re going to have horror stories about kids who are taking two or three days to do 50 math questions.”

In fact, in Texas, officials recently took the opposite tack: The state voted in the 2015 legislative session to end its 35-year policy of having no time limits on tests. State education department officials said parents had complained the untimed tests were taking too long.

Policies concerning timing on tests continue to vary across the country. The two consortia that received federal funding to create assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards went different ways on the timed-versus-untimed question as well. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers’ tests are timed, while the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s tests are not.

Varying Views

And opinions on the issue are all over the place as well. In New York so far, the move to untimed testing has “been met with mixed reviews,” said Marie Wiles, the superintendent of schools in Guilderland, N.Y.

“I personally think it’s a good thing,” she said. “If the argument is that our students felt stressed and pressured because of the ticking of the clock, that pressure is now gone. But I’ve heard the counterargument that we’ll make kids sit there for hours and hours.”

As psychometricians explain, most timed tests are designed to ensure that nearly all students reach the end. The test developers do field studies to figure out how long it takes most students to finish the questions—and then they add time on top of that.

“It’s not like they’re making everybody sweat and hurry up and finish,” said Scott Marion, the executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, in Dover, N.H. “Ninety-five percent of kids, they will have finished it with time to spare. That’s mostly what people have been doing.”

Students with disabilities and English-language learners, who often constitute the percentage of students who have trouble finishing on time, can receive accommodations for extra time through their individualized education programs or Section 504 plans.

Several studies, including a 2000 study by Ronald L. Huesman and David A. Frisbie, both experts in educational measurement, have shown that students with disabilities generally benefit much more from extended time than their nondisabled peers, though both groups can benefit somewhat. Given that the time limits on most standardized tests are carefully field tested to ensure about 9 in 10 students can finish, ending time limits for the general population of students “shouldn’t change test scores,” Marion said.

However, some educators note that for struggling students who haven’t been identified for special services, untimed testing could help.

After about two decades of administering untimed state tests, Massachusetts switched to the PARCC test, which is timed, two years ago.

While teachers were nervous at first, many ended up being pleased with it, said Jeff Wulfson, the deputy commissioner of the state’s department of elementary and secondary education.

“It was a surprise to me a little bit. ... We got a number of comments about how [they] appreciated the timed tests, and appreciated being able to end the testing period and go back to the classroom,” he said. “We asked students, ‘Did you have enough time? Did you feel rushed?’ And overwhelmingly students said they had enough time.”

Massachusetts is creating its own test in place of PARCC, and has not decided whether that test will be timed or not.

“We’ve had a chance to experiment with both, and we’re open to how folks feel in terms of developing next-generation tests,” Wulfson said.

In Missouri, tests have generally been untimed as well—though teachers say some pieces of the old tests did have time limits. The state moved to the Smarter Balanced test last year, which is all untimed.

Erin Cramer, a 4th grade teacher in Hazelwood, Mo., said that the change has been a huge relief for many students. With a timed test, “the level of stress shoots through roof,” she said. “You get kids who have anxiety anyway and it’s life-altering for them.”

But managing an untimed test is much harder than managing a timed one, educators agreed.

“It makes scheduling a real challenge,” said Wulfson. “What do you do with kids when they are finished and their classmates are still taking the test?” That becomes even more complicated with computer-based tests, which students are often cycling in and out of the computer lab to take.

The potential for cheating also becomes a bigger issue with untimed testing. “Once you spread a test over multiple days and there’s opportunity for review, you have test-security problems,” said Cizek, the University of North Carolina scholar.

But Cramer said logistical ease is not enough reason to set time limits.

“Yes, the management of an untimed test is much more difficult,” she said. “But it just seems like such a disservice to kids to put them through that—especially when they’re 10. I just don’t think a 10-year-old should be put under such stress.”

Impact on Opt-Outs?

Consternation about the emphasis on testing came to a head in New York state last year, when as many as 1 in 5 elementary and middle school students failed to show up for the common-core tests. Parents and the New York state teachers union have been vocal about their disdain for testing practices that they say narrow the curriculum and stress out students.

In the 10,000-student Shenendehowa Central district in New York, about 20 percent of students opted out last year. Superintendent Oliver Robinson said the three major concerns he hears from parents about tests are that they’re too stressful, too hard, and too long.

The state’s move to untimed tests is, in part, an attempt to reduce the number of test refusals. In a memo to district leaders, state education officials said the change “will provide students further opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do by allowing them to work at their own pace.”

New York students will have as much time as they need, as long as they are “working productively"—a caveat Cizek said is too subjective.

The memo also notes another change: The tests will have fewer questions, to help “decrease testing fatigue for some students.”

But will these changes make New York parents more comfortable with testing? Educators aren’t sure.

“People are kind of waiting to see if this is a step to appease the public, versus something that will fundamentally make the testing process better for students,” Robinson said. “I’m optimistic we may see a slight bump down [in] the number of opt-outs, but I don’t think it’s going to be significant.”

Wiles, the Guilderland schools chief, said she’s hopeful that opt-outs will lessen, but also knows that parent concerns go beyond timing.

Wulfson of Massachusetts has his doubts as well.

“I’m not sure testing time is a threshold issue for parents who are saying, ‘I don’t like testing to begin with,’ ” he said. “We’re watching what happens in New York, but I’m not sure how much that’s going to influence us.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as States Differ on Whether to Put Time Limits on Their Tests


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