This is the second in an occasional series of stories examining the implementation of the Common Core curriculum in Maryland schools and around the country.
By Glynis Kazanjian
The Maryland Student Assessment test (MSA) is slated to be phased out after this year, when it will be administered once more this spring. But the test is considered outdated because it doesn’t test for what students are learning in classrooms this year under the state's new Common Core education curriculum.
"The MSA tests students on material they aren't being taught, and takes away valuable teaching time to do it," said Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, the lead sponsor of the House bill. "It's testing for the sake of testing, and we should not be giving it."
The bill, which has 10 co-sponsors, including five Republicans, would require the state to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to excuse Maryland from administering the MSA test this year. It costs the state $6 million to give the test.
The Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), a union which represents 71,000 public education employees across the state, asked the state education department to obtain such a waiver, but state officials said DOE offers no such waiver.
State education officials resist
William Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), argued that under existing U.S. law -- the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001-- states are required to test all students in grades 3 through 8 annually in reading and math. He also said there were other merits to going forward with the MSA, including how English language learners perform on the test.
"There is still information to be gained from those tests," Reinhard said. "If all the English language learners in school A do well in the English language portion of the test, but in school B they do not, why is that? This is information that teachers can use."
The department’s chief academic officer, Jack Smith, emphasized this point to Republican legislators at a briefing in Annapolis Tuesday.
“While there is some misalignment” between Common Core and MSA, Smith said, “there is not misalignment between the English language and math parts” for the elementary grades.
However, MSEA spokesman Adam Mendelson says Smith’s statement is “completely contradictory.”
“MSDE has clearly and repeatedly said in the past that there is misalignment,” Mendelson wrote in an email. “In fact, when MSA scores went down this year, MSDE pointed to this misalignment as a primary reason for why scores declined.”
The state plans to use a new assessment test next year based on Common Core curriculum. The test - Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) - will replace the MSA in the 2014-2015 school year. It will be pilot tested this year in every school in Maryland.
Currently, the state has a pending waiver request into the federal education department that requests students who participate in the PARCC pilot not be required to be tested in the same portion of the MSA test.
Common Core: Initiated by the states, pushed by the feds
The testing dispute comes amid wider problems with implementation of the Common Core State Standards curriculum that was set in motion in 2010. Maryland adopted the Common Core curriculum in June 2010, and that September was awarded a $250 million, four-year grant by the U.S. Department of Education to participate in President Obama's Race to the Top education initiative.
Maryland was one of 11 states to first be awarded a Race to the Top grant, although 46 states would eventually apply. Maryland, along with many other states, included the new Common Core curriculum in their applications.
Common Core was developed in partnership with the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, along with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The completion of the curriculum was announced in 2009.
While Common Core may have been developed as a state initiative, federal officials used the grants and test waivers “to incentivize the states to adopt Common Core,” said Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has been studying Common Core. “Every state that won the grant had agreed to adopt Common Core.”
Stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $4.35 billion to fund the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative.
No Child Left Behind still law, but federal waivers make it obsolete
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was up for renewal in 2007, but to this day Congress has not reauthorized it. In 2011, the Obama Administration began to offer federal waivers through the U.S. Department of Education to relieve states of some of the NCLB mandates -- if states met certain educational standards defined by the federal education department.
The "college and career ready standards" established in Common Core were required in both the NCLB waivers and Race to the Top.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of Common Core, according to DOE. However, some school systems across the country are now beginning to show signs of buyer's remorse.
Parents and teachers across the country have criticized the curriculum for essentially dumbing down educational standards, and some states and schools are having trouble implementing it.
Teachers complain they're overwhelmed
In Maryland, lawmakers have been meeting regularly with state education officials, and the message has consistently been the same: teachers are overwhelmed, and in their opinion, underserved by the state.
"It seems like we are on overload," said Del. Melvin Stukes, D-Baltimore City, at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing in December. "I'm hearing frustration from educators. We don't have enough time. We have a good program, but not enough time to roll it out."
Lillian Lowery, state superintendent of schools, acknowledged that the implementation has been inconsistent.
"The problem that you are hearing people discuss the most, builds with implementation, not the standards themselves," Lowery said in a phone interview. "Last year, when we got our test scores back at the state level, we saw a drop in mathematics. We polled all of our districts. Sixteen out of 24 said one of the reasons their assessments dropped was they were implementing the new standards."
Lowery said the state is trying to look at how it can target resources and professional development to avoid a statewide cookie cutter approach with implementation, and go to individual jurisdictions and find out particular needs.
Bill would require more investigation into federal standards
Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery, the sponsor of the Senate companion bill she will introduce shortly to scrap the test, said she too is hearing from frustrated teachers.
"My biggest problem with giving the MSA test to these kids this year is that no one has been able to show me that it's a benefit to our children," King said in an interview. "To give them a test just for the sake of giving them a test, seems wrong. [Teachers] are going to be forced to get their kids ready for an exam that is on curriculum that they are not even teaching this year. The morale of teachers is at an all time low."
King, a former member of the Montgomery County school board, said her bill will ask state education officials to find out what the penalty will be if Maryland doesn't administer the MSA this year.
"If the fine is less than the cost of the test, then Maryland should just pay the penalty," King said. "I'm getting emails from all over the state. It's worth the battle."
Len Lazarick contributed to this story.
Maryland is taking on a significant fiscal role in developing the tests that will assess students based on Common Core curriculum standards, agreeing to administer $96 million in federal grants to create the tests.