Column: To limit or not to limit time spent taking TAKS

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When kids take the SAT, they have to answer 138 questions in two and a half hours.

The ACT asks 215 questions in a little under three hours.

A typical TAKS test has between 40 and 50 questions. So why are some kids taking six or seven hours to finish?

The simple answer: Because they can. Whether they should is a different matter.

The TAKS, like the TAAS before it, is untimed. Kids, who typically start the test around 8:30 a.m., can work into the night if they like. In some schools, most students are still testing at 1 p.m.; in many, at least a few stay past the final bell, No. 2 pencil still in hand.

The result, often, is kids who are exhausted and drained – but not necessarily higher test scores.

“Once you get beyond five hours, you’re really seeing diminished returns,” said Seppy Basili, a vice president at test-prep giant Kaplan. “I can’t emphasize enough you’re not going to see any return. You can make the kid so nervous that it’ll backfire on you.”

Testing is a big deal in Texas. In certain grades, kids have to pass a test to go on to the next grade or graduate from high school. Schools get rated on how their students fare. So it’s not surprising that people try to drain every last correctly filled bubble out of a kid.

If it’s a math problem, teachers tell the kids to repeat their calculations several times. If it’s a reading passage, students are expected to go over it four times, underlining some sentences, circling others, bracketing others.

But is that sixth time going over every answer really going to help? Do answer sheets really improve in the eighth hour of testing?

“There’s a point when you start making up stories to convince yourself you have the wrong answer,” said Ben Paris, director of test preparation for Peterson’s. “You say, ‘Have I really given ‘A’ a fair chance?’ You wind up making good arguments for every answer.”

“Children end up cycling – changing it one way, changing it back, changing it again,” said Bruce Thompson, a professor at Texas A&M who studies testing. “I’m not satisfied any child gains anything from checking more than twice.”

The people who run tests such as the ACT say they keep their lengths to about three hours because they know high school kids can wear out after long stretches of concentration. If so, what about 9-year-olds?

The educators I spoke to tended to support untimed tests to give all children as much of a chance as they can. “Students work at different speeds,” said Debbie Chisolm, principal of Dorsey Elementary in Rowlett, where some kids worked on last week’s TAKS from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Our goal is to assess what they know, not their speed. Some kids are very meticulous.”

Parents were less unanimous. “The parents I speak with say that there should be a reasonable amount of time given,” Plano parent Debrah Chockley said. “The kids are either able to do the work, or they’re not. There’s no need for them to keep dwelling on it all day.”

Don McLeroy, a State Board of Education member from Bryan, has been lobbying to time portions of the TAKS. He thinks you don’t get a real gauge of a child’s skills without a stopwatch ticking.

For example: Kids should know how to multiply five times eight. But because they have all the time in the world, some can get away with actually drawing five little bunches of eight lines and counting them all up.

“I want to know if basic math for these kids is automatic,” he said. “If they haven’t mastered these basics to the point that they can answer them quickly, it’s going to hurt them later on when the concepts get more advanced.”

Put me in charge of Texas education, and I’d opt for a compromise: Set a time limit, but not a tight one.

Dr. Thompson says allowing three or four minutes per question should be plenty of time on a test such as TAKS. That works out to somewhere around three hours per test. (All but three of the 26 TAKS tests have between 36 and 58 real questions, plus a handful of other questions being tested for use on a future test.)

So set a limit of four or five hours, just to be safe.

If a child has a specific learning disability, his or her parents or teacher could request extra time, just as they can on the SAT or ACT. It’s not perfect, but it might make the TAKS death march a little less brutal – and give kids a reason to work at something other than a snail’s pace.

“The limits of physical endurance are not something that should be tested on these exams,” Mr. Paris said.

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. Thinking About Education, a column by the newspaper’s education staff, runs each Monday in the Metropolitan section.