How much time should students get?

There is a short but interesting post over at Education Week that considers the question of how much time students should have on exams and assignments. The teacher essentially argues students should have as much time as they need and sees timed assessments as an artificial construction that doesn’t mirror real life tasks. True. However, as those of us in Texas can attest, there is a dark side to allowing students to take “as much time as they need.”

The state exam for Texas, known as the TAKS, permitted students to spend the entire school day on 40 – 50 multiple choice question exams. Some schools went a step further and forbid students to even turn in a completed exam until 2 in the afternoon on testing days in order to ensure they took their time and checked over their work. As a teacher, these were some of the most physically grueling (teachers couldn’t sit down, I was even given a pedometer once and encouraged to compete for the “most steps taken throughout the testing day”) and mentally lobotomizing days of my teaching career. Most students did take their time and usually finished just before lunch for a total of 4 hours testing. Once I had a student stay at school till 10:00pm finishing an exam because, she later said, she wanted to see how late we would let her stay. Students as young as 3rd grade were kept in the same room all day (lunch was eaten in the room) and only allowed out for monitored restroom breaks.

In addition to these ridiculous extremes the “as much time as necessary” approach led to measurable reductions in Texan students’ ability to perform on timed tests like AP exams and the SAT. I wonder though if the issue here isn’t with the time allotment but rather with the value and emphasis placed on these high-stakes exams? What if the same effort was dedicated to more rigorious academic tasks like conducting an authentic scientific experiment, writing a historical paper using a local museum archive, or learning how to file a tax return for a cupcake shop?  Or what if, God forbid, the same energy was spent on creative tasks like playing an instrument, painting a mural or choreographing a modernist take on the Nutcracker?

My thinking here really crystalized when I became a mother. I thought, “There is no way I will ever allow my daughter to sit for 8 hours in the same classroom with the single task of completing 50 multiple choice questions. It is simply inhumane.” So what can we do? Here some thoughts I’ve had:

  • Advocate for appropriate time limits for your students: Often the problem is not enough time as opposed to the TAKS situation. Teachers play a critical role in ARD meetings by advocating students with IEPs receive the time they need to be successful. Additionally, adapting a flexible or at least scaffolded approach to timed assessments can also help students who struggle with timing be more successful.
  • Make sure students are aware of time during an exam: Project a time on the front of your room or give students time updates by calling out minutes remaining or writing the time on the board. Encourage students to wear watches on exam days.
  • Lead your class in stretches before, during and after the exam: Sitting for such a long time is simply unhealthy. Help students – regardless if an exam is timed or untimed – by leading a class-wide stretching session. Roll the head, shoulders, do a few back twists and finish with some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing.
  • If time is inflexible (as with a state exam or the ACT) practice, practice, practice: The more realistic and authentic you can make practice exams the better. Time should play a central role in practicing for any timed high stakes exam. Students should get the feel of what the time limit for a particular exam is and should know, for example, how many questions to have answered by 1 hour in to the exam and what to do if they are running behind or if they have extra time.
  • If this all sounds crazy, have your child, or a child you love, opt-out: There is a time and place for standardized testing but many believe the pendulum has swung too far. It used to be considered fringe and radical but more and more parents are refusing to allow their children to participate in low-rigor, high-emphasis state tests. As with all civil disobedience there is a right and a wrong way to do this but I think there is potentially a lot of power in parents and students taking a stand through respectful non-compliance. Check out this website for more resources.

How do you handle timed assessments in your classroom?

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