Test for knowledge and reasoning, not for speed


Why are we testing students for speed in high-stakes standardized testing?

The college-admissions tests SAT and ACT measure general verbal and quantitative reasoning and achievement related to high school curricula, respectively. The Florida Standards Assessments (FSA), End of Course (EOC) and Advanced Placement (AP) tests measure subject-matter knowledge. All of these tests are given under strict time limits, emphasizing performance under speed.

Yet, if measuring reasoning, achievement and knowledge are the objectives, why is speed even an appropriate metric of standardized tests?

In general, standardized tests are timed as a means for making score comparisons among test takers who attempt the same tasks under the same testing conditions and time constraints, and whose responses are scored with the same procedures. Time seems to be more of a concern with the SAT and ACT as these tests are norm-referenced (compared against other students). In criterion-referenced assessments like the FSA, EOC and AP, where the purpose is for students to demonstrate mastery of the standards rather than performance compared to their peers, time is a less important factor.

We have many students who are fantastic thinkers, but work more slowly than their peers, and who no doubt will be exceedingly successful in life. Teachers understand that the purpose of a test is to gauge knowledge accurately, and that each student learns differently.

There are teachers who allow more time to students who need it for classroom tests, even without an Individual Education Plan (IEP) mandating it. There are other teachers who believe that “speed” is a component of knowledge. Teachers should have the flexibility to exercise their professional judgment to use timed tests in their classes, as part of their mix of pedagogical tools.

But, apart from Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners who qualify for extended time, students may not receive the extended time they need in high-stakes standardized tests. Yet, many of these students will not be accurately assessed because they could have used more time and thus rushed through their tests or left questions unanswered, even though they know the subject matter and can reason well.

There seems to be no overriding need to limit the testing time for anyone in standardized testing other than for the logistical issues which do not take into account the students’ best interests.

While time should not be unlimited (beyond one school day) to protect against cheating, the model Florida uses for “extended time” groups would serve all students just as well.

The SAT and ACT tests would still be able to compare the results of the students taking those tests by measuring reasoning and achievement and excluding time as one of the factors in the comparison.

Schools focus, as they should, on developing the knowledge and reasoning skills of students. We want our schools to develop deep thinkers who can solve a complex calculus, civics, economics or physics problem, authors who can write beautiful poetry or prose and creative artists, to name examples that do not emphasize speed.

Admittedly, effective performance under time pressure is an important aspect of many jobs. But, time-management skills are learned best and primarily through work experience and hands-on training.

If testing for knowledge, achievement and reasoning truly are the objectives, then it is time we seriously consider eliminating timed testing in all standardized tests.

It certainly would go a long way toward eliminating unnecessary stress.

But, let’s take our time to think through this issue carefully. We want to get the correct answer. There is no need to rush to make a decision just to do it within an artificial time limit.

Bob Martinez is a former vice-chair of the state Board of Education and Sandi Acosta is a middle-school teacher and test chairperson at Kenwood K-8 Center.