Unlimited Time on Tests Betrays Unlimited Incompetence in Albany

Laurence J. Peter famously said that everyone rises to their level of incompetence. In Albany, with many things and especially education, such rises are often meteoric and occur at breakneck speeds. While there are some good changes coming down the pike in the ever-turbulent education scene, these are not due to thoughtful reflection or competent educational management. The de-coupling of teacher evaluations and high stakes examinations for the next few years is at once a relief to teachers and a sign to the electorate that the third Cuomo election season is coming. Despite the broken clocks telling the right time twice a day, the growing evidence of the buoyantly incompetent unelected gears in the Education Machine. Even as they try to appease parents, educators, and advocates—especially those involved in the increasingly powerful Opt-Out Movement—the Board of Regents and the State Education Department expose their baffling lack of understanding of education, science, and management. Almost daily, it becomes increasingly apparent that the empty suits who run the New York State Education Department don’t understand the populations whose future rests in their incapable hands.

MaryEllen Elia, the latest New York State Commissioner of Education, recently attempted to relieve parents and students who are rightfully stressed by the stakes attached to the upcoming State tests by announcing that the timing requirement would be extremely relaxed. Practically speaking, the tests will now be untimed so long as students are “working productively” during administration. There are immediate causes for concern regarding this newest development and none of them are particularly inspiring of confidence in NYSED’s understanding of what these tests do to students, are supposed to measure from students, or how they are administered to students.

At first blush, unlimited time seems like a huge benefit for kids who aren’t traditionally strong test takers, and something of a boon for Students with Disabilities who receive extra time and will now receive even more, however that isn’t entirely the case. While the timed aspect of the test does, in fact, cause stress for some, giving other students “unlimited time” also resigns them to a special kind of hell where the test never ends. In this ungodly circumstance, students will be working on the test all day. The caveat of, “working productively” is predictably vague language—how exactly does New York State expect proctors to gauge “productive work” on these tests? Are students to be hooked up to MRI machines so that the proctors can gauge their brain activity? Are the proctors going to ask Billy or Mary if they are still working or if they “feel” done? The area in which to operationally define the term “productive” is too wide to be considered standardized for these standardized exams.

There’s also a bit of an issue with calling these examinations standardized anymore. A standardized test isn’t standard just because the questions are all the same. While many students may flourish and perform incredibly well with the removal of the timed criterion for the exams and others may not be impacted at all, removing this norm from the exam has undercut and invalidated a huge tool of standardization for the tests. There are very strict rules for standardized exams that go beyond the items on the exam. Everything from writing utensils to ranges of temperature to the time allotted to take the exam is taken into account when tests are written to ensure that they measure what they are intended to measure. By removing the time standard for a test that was supposed to be strictly timed a huge aspect of the science of the assessment has been removed. Validation data for the New State Tests is almost as valued a treasure as an authentic map to Atlantis. We must put trust in NYSED that these tests actually measure student proficiency and teacher quality as we’ve been assured over the years, because there is no other evidence than the wink and nod offered to guarantee their validity as quality, scientifically sound measures. The fact that they don’t make the validation information available is cause for concern in the first place; removing the timed aspect, seemingly on a whim, discards any remaining cachet for the validity of these exams as sound measures.

Finally, there is a concern for test administration itself. If students are allowed to have “unlimited” time on the exam, what are other students in the classrooms supposed to be doing for the full day? Let’s assume Billy and Mary are “productively” working from the beginning of the test at 9:00 until the end of the school day at 2:20 in a New York City school. At what point are the other students to be allowed to speak or read a book? Neither of these are allowed under testing procedures. When are the students allowed to eat lunch? How are teachers supposed to account for “lost time” during bathroom breaks (as it stands if a student goes to the bathroom during the test, they have to be given that time back and the length of time out of the room has to be measured)? Are the students to be moved after “normal” time is over? Does that count for students with IEP mandated time-and-a-half or double time? Or are students to be moved? If the students taking the tests are moved how do you ensure test confidentiality and non-contamination and if the students who completed are moved, where are they to be housed? This will be a concern in over-crowded schools, and perhaps even in schools that aren’t. Furthermore, what of the Test Administration handbooks that teachers are forced to read and sign off on annually? The state would have to revise and distribute this handbook before testing this Spring. There are a number of practical and logistical problems that come from this statement that the State must have a game plan for.

Or not. Perhaps districts are supposed to tend to their own gardens while the State hopes that nobody asks.

It may seem odd to hear criticism from an educator and parent with no dear love for high stakes exams on this issue, but let it be on the record that I think standardized exams have an important role to play in the Big Data Age of Education we are in. We need baseline data to understand what children are capable of. That said, the empty suits who choke our field with their imposed importance must know that state tests are hardly the end-all-be-all of education measurement. Additionally, their understanding of how these tests work should be paramount to the importance of their administration. After all, why should students be forced to take them if they aren’t going to measure anything, anyway? If these tests are based in science you can’t just throw away timing if they were designed to be timed. If anything the Commissioner should have made a policy that these exams would not be part of promotional criteria to alleviate stress rather than removing the timing aspect. The heart of the matter is the stakes placed on the exams—and the disaggregated data of geography, race, socioeconomic status, and educational status would still all be available without the stakes, but the data is invalid without the timing. It won’t help anyone. In point of fact, I recently stated in a meeting about this year’s tests that removing the timing doesn’t help anyone, to which an Assistant Principal disagreed and I had to take my statement back. Administrators will have far less planning to do to in terms of finding spaces for students with extra time on tests. So there’s that. But they’ll likely have a harder time finding spaces due to unlimited timing. Meanwhile, Commissioner Elia and the rest of the policy makers in Albany have a great opportunity to see exactly how high they can rise to meet their level incompetence. It may not seem like they can do anything any worse than they do now, but hey, John King is now in charge of the United States Department of Education. So it seems they have unlimited time to fumble to the top.

Brandon Melendez is a New York City educator and a student in the Doctoral Program in Learning and Teaching at Hofstra University.

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