Opinion
Assessment Opinion

It’s Time to End Timed Tests

By Alden S. Blodget — September 30, 2019 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The outrage this year over the attempts of the rich and infamous to rig the college admissions process in favor of their children has focused new attention on an old issue: purchasing a diagnosis to qualify for extended time on standardized tests. During my 18 years as an assistant head of school, from the late ‘80s to the early 2000s, the increasing number of students with psychologists’ recommendations for extended time made me suspicious. While students with real learning difficulties are legally entitled to a number of “reasonable accommodations,” others seemed solely interested in being allowed more time on tests—tests given by classroom teachers and, especially, the SAT and ACT.

A few conversations with a psychologist who offered families this diagnostic service confirmed my suspicions that not all of these diagnoses were legitimate. He explained the complexity and inexact science of arriving at a diagnosis and spoke of the pressure from parents whose goal was to obtain the recommendation for extended time. He recounted instances when he resisted the pressure, so the parents procured the recommendation from someone else.

Our emphasis on speed in school is antithetical to stimulating meaningful learning."

I began to wonder about the system itself. Why do we bother with timed tests? Why do we believe that speed reflects intelligence? As teachers, we see all sorts of students who work at different speeds, which produce both intelligent and not-so-intelligent results.

I taught English, so my tests tended to require essays or short paragraphs. Annie always aced them. Ideas seemed to just flow from her pen as she hunched over her paper. She usually finished early. Bill also wrote quickly, but he was trying to list all his thoughts before he actually started organizing and writing his responses to the essay questions. At the bell, he was often rushing to finish. Sally was slow. She tapped her pen on her palm and stared into space, thinking about what she wanted to say, searching for that first sentence that was always so important to get her launched. She produced wonderful essays written outside the classroom, but her results on timed tests were poor.

Circumstances play a significant role in performance. Harvard University researchers Kurt Fischer and Thomas R. Bidell noted in a 2006 paper, “Children (and adults) show distinct levels of competence under different conditions.” Their research suggests that learning involves a process of building, regressing, and rebuilding neural skills. Rather than memorizing facts and procedures, learning math requires that we build webs of interrelated skills for math. Understanding the Civil War means building a conceptual understanding of the Civil War. At first, these skills for thinking are fragile, requiring nurturing conditions of high support.

Typically, in less supportive circumstances (anxiety over a high-stakes test, being asked to tackle an unfamiliar problem), the skill collapses (regresses) and must be rebuilt. Regression actually plays an essential role in learning. Rebuilding these networks results in increasing stability. Our obsession with speed ignores the reality of learning.

Speed is less a sign of intelligence than a sign of the automaticity that many experts evince, and it seems nuts to expect young learners to be experts, let alone experts in the many different fields they are required to study in school: expert mathematicians, historians, scientists, writers, readers, linguists, artists. Experts have developed deep knowledge, understanding, and experience that can allow at least some of them to function quickly and intuitively, usually in a particular field and under certain circumstances. Why would we expect students to have developed this sort of intuitive ability?

Neuroscientists Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth explore the development of “skilled intuition” in young learners—the integration of “emotional with cognitive knowledge.” They write, that while “students may be slower to build the full representation of the material, without the development of sound intuitions undergirding their representations, it is likely that the students will not remember the material in the long-term, and that even if they remember it in an abstract sense, they will have difficulty applying it to novel situations.”

Many tests ask students to do exactly this: quickly apply to new situations skills and understanding that they have just begun to develop. They simply aren’t ready. Our emphasis on speed in school is antithetical to stimulating meaningful learning, the sort of learning that we claim is the goal of education.

As we ask students to approach a problem, we need to understand the many factors that can affect the speed with which they might solve it: How complex will this student find the problem? How much experience has that student had with problems like this one? What’s his skill level? How methodical does she tend to be when working through problems? How likely is this problem to initiate the collapse of his fragile understanding of the concept being tested? What is her stress level? The answers, even if we could know them, will vary for each student.

Researchers have helped us understand that all brains are different. A normal brain or an average brain is a myth. Yet school practices continue to reflect the myth. Some vague notion of an average brain sets the expectations for the speed with which students “ought” to complete a task. The results—the failures, the mediocre performances, the frustration felt by both students and teachers—suggest there is a problem with this approach. As the stakes go up, as grades and scores determine who will gain entry into the “best” colleges, desperate people opt to cheat.

In my own classroom, I found a simple solution: extended time for everyone. The results were gratifying. Less stress eliminated one major cause of skill collapse. Students could work at their own speed—read questions carefully, organize their thoughts, start again, think. All students could move through tests at whatever pace was comfortable, and more students performed well. Most still finished within the time for which I had designed the test, but a few stayed an hour or more later (though, interestingly, not most of the students who qualified for extended time).

Extending the time for all seems a more productive approach to establishing equity. Perhaps it’s time for the SAT and ACT to take this small step—at least until we finally align our approach to assessment with our growing understanding of learning and the brain.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2019 edition of Education Week as Don’t Stop, Don’t Put Down Your Pencils


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

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.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
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.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

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

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.
Sponsor
Assessment Whitepaper
Proven Techniques for Assessing Students with Technology
Dr. Doug Fisher’s proven assessment techniques help your students become active learners and increase their chances for higher learning g...
Content provided by Achieve3000
Assessment Long a Testing Bastion, Florida Plans to End 'Outdated' Year-End Exams
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will shift to "progress monitoring" starting in the 2022-23 school year.
5 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he believes a new testing regimen is needed to replace the Florida Standards Assessment, which has been given since 2015.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Assessment Spotlight Spotlight on Assessment in 2021
In this Spotlight, review newest assessment scores, see how districts will catch up with their supports for disabled students, plus more.
Assessment 'Nation's Report Card' Has a New Reading Framework, After a Drawn-Out Battle Over Equity
The new framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress will guide development of the 2026 reading test.
10 min read
results 925693186 02
iStock/Getty