November 17, 2017

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Timing Is Everything | Consider the Source

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Marc Aronson with Susan Bartle

Timing Is Everything

Anyone who has followed this column, or has heard me speak, knows that I’m in the cheering section for the Common Core English Language Arts State Standards. But speaking as an advocate for the standards, I have a serious concern. I’m hearing mixed messages about the assessments that raise a question on which librarians must take a stand.

Background

Many states have moved from the implementation phase of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to assessment. In general, states are using tests crafted by one of two groups: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or Smarter Balanced. No matter which test states choose, the crucial question is whether the tests will be timed.

For several years we have emphasized that students need to engage in close reading; the message is that we are going deep, not broad. We have taught them how to use context clues and inference to make sense of terms, concepts, and ideas that may be unfamiliar. We have insisted that reading for evidence, for argument, and for point of view is the key to college and career readiness. We have told our students that if they practiced these skills and were able to derive meaning through careful reading, they would do well on the assessments.

But if the assessments are timed, we have lied. We have taught one set of skills while assessing another. Timing our tests means that we favor privilege, not learning; that those who do well on the tests will have additional background knowledge and vocabulary, pick up key facts quickly, or are skilled at test taking. If those are the skills that we care about, they should be the skills we are teaching. By timing CCSS assessments we have done a disservice to our students—either by teaching them the wrong skills, or administering the wrong test.

Tests without time limits are a different story. Students who come upon an unfamiliar term can pause and use the strategies they have learned, without worrying about a ticking clock. They can take as long as they need to determine where a passage says X, and which details support that conclusion. Untimed tests, no matter how difficult or imperfect, tell students that what matters is careful reading utilizing the approaches and strategies they have learned and practiced.

I have seen and heard contradictory statements from PARCC. On its website there’s a table of the “estimated time it will take students to complete” the tests, and the statement:

“These times refer to on-task time, or the time it will take most students to complete the PARCC summative tests. While it is anticipated that most students will complete the test sessions in the estimated times, states will make a limited amount of additional time available to learners who work at slower rates.”

Note “a limited amount of additional time” is not the same as untimed. Yet in an email to parents in the School District of South Orange & Maplewood in New Jersey where I live, a PARCC FAQ states, “schools must schedule according to ‘Total Administration Time,’ so that students who need the additional time are able to use it.”

When I asked someone at PARCC, she insisted the tests are untimed. The indefatigable Sue Bartle–library system director for a Western New York BOCES—reports that the ambiguity increases as you examine the rules in each state. Colorado, for example, echoes the “limited time” language and New Mexico specifies that “While students will have access to scratch paper on the PARCC assessments, they will not have time to write answers by hand and copy them on to the computer.”

So what is it? Timed, limited extra time, as much additional time as needed, or untimed assessments? I understand that administrators must plan for how long rooms and computers will be in use and that guidelines of typical performance are useful. But that administrative need cannot and must not change the nature of the test—from an assessment of close reading to an assessment of prior knowledge. It is quite possible to deliver untimed CCSS assessments. Smarter Balanced is doing just that. Admittedly, it may be more difficult with limited computers, but this should not be the tail that wags the dog.

So friends, we need some straight answers from PARCC, and we need to speak up for students’ right to be examined on the skills the CCSS are designed to impart. It is absurd to think that we take the time needed in the classroom with students to absorb rich, complex text, then place these same students under time constraints on testing days.

I urge the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) to speak for all school librarians and demand that the testing consortia make a clear, unequivocal statement that CCSS assessments be untimed. Additionally, AASL should consider creating partnerships with other educational organizations (PTA, PTO, NCLE, NEA) to build deeper support on this issue across the country.

*This just in: In the first PARCC tests, students were given half again as much time as the tester’s expected them to need, and students worked up to the very last minute; see this Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz.

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Comments

  1. John chiles says:

    Does the additional time lead to better outcomes or not. What is the long term outcome of those students. College graduation or work history. Or is this all theoretical.