Should Tests Have Time Limits?

In January 2016, New York’s State Education Department announced that its exams will no longer be timed. The overhaul of the federally mandated English and math tests, which are taken by students from grades three to eight, follows concerns that students often struggle to finish within the allotted time.

Instead of the tests taking 50 to 90 minutes (depending on grade level) per day for six days, students will now have up to three days per subject, meaning it could now potentially take six full days to complete the testing.

Announcing the changes, members of the State Education Department (SED) said they expect untimed tests to reduce stress on children and allow them to demonstrate more effectively their knowledge in a productive environment. SED spokespeople wrote, “This change will provide students with further opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do by allowing them to work at their own pace.”

But educators have taken a more cautious view, with New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) pushing for more fundamental changes to be prioritized. “More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said. Others have decried the potentially lengthy new testing process as a waste of valuable instructional time.

The idea of untimed standardized tests is not a new one; the New York State Testing Program School Administrator’s Manual currently recommends that students with disabilities or English language learners should be accommodated with extended time. This practice has been shown to be extremely effective for students with learning disabilities.

What about the bulk of the student population? The study mentioned above indicates that non-learning disabled students made significant gains in reading and comprehension when told to work at a slow and careful pace with no regard to time limits.

But another study found that the benefits of untimed testing were largely insignificant for elementary students and that timed tests were actually more effective for grade six and higher. Other research produced such varied results that no conclusion about the superiority of either method could be drawn.

Overall it’s unclear whether untimed tests are worth the class time they eat into; the effects of New York’s new scheme remain to be seen, but it appears the best practice currently is to grant extended time to those students who require it and impose reasonable limits on everyone else. Perhaps the most important thing is that students receive clear and comprehensive instruction from their teachers and feel able to work at a calm, careful pace.


Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.