Moving away from timed tests
Monday, October 21, 2019
In a recent Education Week article, Alden S. Blodget asked why we as educators believe that speed reflects intelligence. Blodget reported an alarming upward trend he observed over three decades during his tenure as an assistant head of school: students’ parents pushing for extended test time accommodations — for both school tests and standardized tests.
He would receive diagnoses from families looking to get extended time added to their child’s education plan, and he wasn’t always convinced these were accurate.
Blodget writes, "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."
Blodget’s observations led him to a startling realization. He writes, "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."
It is indeed an excellent question that can make all of us wonder at any level of our K-12 educational systems.
Fred Bramante and Rose Colby, in their 2012 book, "Off the Clock: Moving Education From Time to Competency," wrote extensively about how educators should imagine a school without clocks and think about what it would look like to move the standard measure of learning from one of seat time to one of mastery of learning objectives.
For more than a century since the American industrialist and steel mogul Andrew Carnegie first proposed the idea in the early 1900s, secondary schools and colleges have used time as the standard measure of learning. The Carnegie Unit was first introduced as a way to award academic credit based on the amount of time students spent in direct contact with a teacher or professor.
At the time of its inception, the Carnegie Unit helped bring about a level of standardization that the American education system had never seen. It provided for the educational model what the dollar first provided for our financial system: A common language and a common unit of measure that could be quantified, assessed, and traded.
Carnegie’s industrialist model for measuring learning has long been challenged by educational reformers who believe there are more effective ways to measure student learning, but it hasn’t been until recently that these reformers have had the opportunity to challenge the model at a systemic level.
Bramonte and Colby write, "That opportunity to reimagine public education is before us today. At no other time in public education have we been so challenged by the constraints of the economy, the public outcry for changes in financing personnel and resources, and the demand for accountability through testing."
In true competency-based schools, standards are the true measure of learning. With carefully crafted assessments that are tied to these standards and rubrics that can measure to what degree students have mastered a concept or skill, it is possible to create a structure whereby students can advance upon mastery.
Looking through this lens, it seems equally possible to imagine moving away from timed exams all together. If the goal of a test is to determine to what extent someone has learned something, why does it matter how long it takes them to demonstrate their learning on a test?
Blodget writes, "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."
He goes on to suggest, "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." His points are worth the consideration of educators at all levels of our K-12 system.
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