Challenging 5 Assumptions About Time-Limited Evaluations

Every student can succeed when instruction, assessments, and learning environments are designed for their needs. But in many ways, our education system was originally designed to suit the operational needs of the institution.

Take assessment and evaluation as an example. The primary purpose of assessment and evaluation is to improve student learning.

So why do we make students write tests or exams in a set amount of time? Is measuring speed an important part of the evaluation, or is it just convenient for the teacher?

For students in a culinary course, time is of the essence. But when writing an essay or labelling a diagram, it does not matter how long students take to finish. Speed is not an expectation in any of the curriculum documents I have come across.

Placing artificial time constraints on an evaluation creates an unnecessary barrier and is inequitable. When a student loses marks for questions they could have answered but left blank because they didn’t have time to finish, the teacher is judging their speed not their smarts.

It took years of teaching before I began to challenge the assumptions I held about timed evaluations:

“It isn’t fair to kids with an Individual Education Plan who need the extra time.” Students are evaluated against rubrics or success criteria. Their performance is not evaluated against each other. Extra time is given with respect to the expected completion time that the evaluation was designed for. So if other students are also provided with additional time, that does not mean that a student with an IEP is not being accommodated. 

“Some kids don’t need extra time.”  Student achievement and well-being, can vary greatly over time. Research has found that students’ emotional well-being has decreased over time.  Many students come to class with hidden disabilities. Depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and concussions are not visible, but they negatively affect student performance and well-being. In some cases, very capable students do not perform well on tests because anxiety gets in the way. Providing everyone with adequate time reduces test anxiety and allows all students to demonstrate their understanding. You never know he needs it on any given day.

“We need to prepare students for the real world.”  My boss does not time how long it takes for me to create a lesson. Nobody wrote “5 minutes left” on the whiteboard in front of me while I worked on this article. In fact, most professionals are not required to complete each piece of their work under the stress of artificial time constraints. What matters most is delivering a quality product, not a sub-par one that you were arbitrarily stopped from working on after one hour.

“We need to prepare students for post-secondary.”  Post-secondary institutions are also moving towards Universal Design for Learning approaches to evaluation, in order to increase accessibility and decrease the need for individual accommodations.

“We need to prepare students for standardized testing.”  In Ontario, an IEP is no longer a requirement for a student to receive additional time on a standardized test. The time students are given for the test should simply reflect the regular classroom environment throughout the year.

Nowadays I don’t give my students time-limited evaluations. If I do give a test, my students know they can finish it at lunch, or the next day, or even take it home for the night. More often, I have them demonstrate their learning through projects or performance tasks, with flexible deadlines.

In doing so I have not lowered my expectations. I’ve eliminated unnecessary barriers to student achievement and created a more equitable learning environment.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools. 
Toronto District School Board. (2018). 2017 Student & Parent Census Overall Findings
York University. (2017). Osgoode Strategic Plan – “Access Osgoode 2017-2020”

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