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Common-Core Assessment Group Revises Testing Time

The PARCC testing consortium has announced that schools will need to schedule about 10 hours of testing time this spring for elementary school students, and nearly 11 hours or more for middle and high school students.

Released Thursday, the new time projections are higher than the estimates that PARCC issued in March of 2013: eight to 10 hours of testing. But that's because the earlier figures reflected something different: the amount of time "typical" students would need to complete the English/language arts and mathematics tests.

The new numbers, informed by data from last spring's field test of 1 million students, reflect the amounts of time needed to allow "virtually all" students to finish the tests.

K-12_Dealmaking.gifThe field tests showed that 75 percent of students finished the tests in 6½ to 7½ hours, PARCC officials said. But to facilitate "virtually all" students completing the tests, PARCC is instructing schools to allot 9¾ hours to 11¼ hours for the first operational assessment in the spring of 2015.

PARCC told schools to allot 13 to 15 hours for the field test, depending on students' grade level. But that amount of time proved to be more than what most students needed, said Jeffrey Nellhaus, PARCC's director of policy, research, and design.

Most students will complete the test sessions in 6½ to 7½ hours, PARCC told member states in its latest announcement, "however, schools must plan for the full unit time so that all students have the opportunity to complete the test."

The 6½- to-7½-hour time frame was provided for schools "for informational purposes," Nellhaus said, so they can anticipate when many students would finish the exams.

Here are the amounts of time PARCC projects will be needed for "virtually all" students to complete the tests:

Grade 3:
English/language arts: 4¾ hours
Math: 5 hours
Total: 9 ¾ hours

Grades 4-5:
English/language arts: 5 hours
Math: 5 hours
Total: 10 hours

Grades 6-8:
English/language arts: 5 ¾ hours
Math: 5 hours
Total:  10 ¾ hours

Grades 9-11:
English/language arts: 5¾ hours
Math (Algebra I, Geometry, Integrated Math 1 or Integrated Math 2): 5 ⅓ hours
Math (Algebra II or Integrated Math 3): 5 ½ hours
Total: 11 to 11¼ hours

The PARCC assessments in English/language arts and mathematics are given at two junctures of the school year: The longer performance-based tasks are given three-quarters of the way through the year, in three sessions in English/language arts and two sessions in math. Sets of shorter questions are given nine-tenths of the way through the year, typically in two sessions.

Details of the session times released by PARCC show key places where the consortium shaved off time. The end-of-year portion of the English/language arts test for grades 3-5 was shortened from two sessions to one, eliminating about an hour of test time. Five to 15 minutes were pared off the math end-of-year test times. The projected times needed for the performance tasks in both subjects have been shortened in some cases, too, by 10 to 30 minutes.

Some of those reductions were facilitated by a PARCC decision, announced last month, to drop some questions and reading passages from the English/language arts end-of-year test.

PARCC officials said the consortium will reexamine the testing times after the test is given next spring to see if they need to be adjusted. One of the unknowns, for instance, is whether students finished the field tests more quickly because they didn't take them seriously. Times might need to be adjusted if the spring 2015 test data indicate the students are taking longer to finish.

The other federally funded consortium, Smarter Balanced, has not made any adjustments to its projected testing times in the wake of its field-testing experiences. The Smarter Balanced assessments are still projected to take seven to 8 ½ hours, depending on grade level, as the consortium announced in November 2012. To produce those time estimates, the consortium scaled back the number of performance tasks in the test to one in mathematics and one in English/language arts. Smarter Balanced's original design was projected to take students 10 ½ hours or more to complete. 

Even as the time estimates for PARCC and Smarter Balanced exceed what many states currently require for their state exams, causing no small amount of political cringing and squirming, those tests won't be the ones that most students in the country will take in the 2014-15 school year.

An Education Week analysis shows that only 17 states plan to use the Smarter Balanced test this spring, and nine states plus the District of Columbia plan to use the PARCC test. Twenty-four states have chosen other tests or are still deciding which tests to use, and those 24 states enroll 58 percent of the K-12 students in the United States.

It remains to be seen whether PARCC's new test-time estimates will represent increases or decreases for its member states. In the District of Columbia, students currently take an untimed test. Minimum testing times range from six to 8 ½ hours, but students "regularly exceed these times," said district spokesman Briant K. Coleman.

Superintendent Jesús Aguirre said that schools might find it easier to handle scheduling when they move to a test with defined session times. But he's mindful of the risk that some students might feel they don't have enough time.

"There is that tension around the timing issue," he said. "We don't want to reduce the opportunity for our kids to do their best, but I'm pretty confident that the times being proposed find the right middle ground."

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