Shorter State Tests for Youngest Students

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State education department officials said they've heard complaints from teachers and parents, and will reduce the duration of the 2013 math and reading tests for third and fourth graders.

The 2012 exams each consisted of three 90-minute sections. Officials got feedback that this was too long for the lower grades. They said the new maximum testing times will be "significantly less" though they couldn't give a precise figure yet.

The maximum duration for each section will remain 90 minutes for grades 5-8.

Also new this year: students who finish early officially have permission from the state to read a book after submitting their test materials. Previously, students could only sit at their desks

Meanwhile, field tests - which are not graded - will be given next week at 559 schools around the state in grades 4-9; about a third of the schools are located in New York City. Field tests are usually given to elementary and middle schools in the spring, after the state exams, to try out different types of questions. But officials said they wanted to try spreading the field tests around so they aren't all clustered in the spring.

The maximum length for a field test is 40 minutes.

Some parents have objected to the field tests and plan to boycott them again this year.

The 2013 state exams will be the first ones aligned with the Common Core standards, which emphasize more non-fiction and critical thinking in reading and math. State exams have become more rigorous since 2010. Teachers in districts including New York City have been encouraged to incorporate the new standards in their classes.

Officials acknowledge the new exams will be "challenging" and harder to pass, noting "students will struggle and teachers will struggle." But they said these tougher test questions are necessary in the push to get more students ready for college and careers.

For example, reading passages may ask students to write short arguments based on examples from a given text, instead of writing essays from their own point of view. And they said students may see passages from provocative works such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or Richard Wright's "Native Son," but that nothing in the test passages will be controversial.

All test questions will be drawn from "authentic texts," not condensed stories or parables written just for the exams. In other words, there won't be any infamous talking pineapples.

Guides to the new exams will be distributed to teachers and schools at the end of October.