Wide variance in hours spent in testing public schools kids, commission finds

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By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

By U.S. Department of Education with Flickr Creative Commons License.

By U.S. Department of Education with Flickr Creative Commons License.

In Queen Anne’s County, second graders take 28 hours of locally mandated tests each year, the highest in any Maryland school system. In Montgomery County, they take just four hours of county required assessments but that number climbs to 23 to 26 hours by the time students are in high school.

In Carroll County, high school seniors take 32 hours of required tests — not counting the statewide assessments — the highest amount in the state, along with Cecil County. In Howard County high schools, seniors take no locally mandated assessments.

What do these numbers mean? What does it tell us that Howard County public schools, regarded as some of the best in the state, spend some of the fewest hours testing their students? Yet equally well-regarded schools in Montgomery County require tests in middle and high school that take three, four and even five times as many hours?

That’s what members of Maryland’s new Testing Commission were trying to wrap their heads around in their second meeting Thursday in Annapolis. They had lots of questions, but no immediate answers, which they hope will come over the next months of work.

The staff of the Maryland State Department of Education, charged with supporting the work of the commission, had distilled 300-pages of responses from local school systems about their testing into a one-page chart listing all 24 school system and the number of hours spent in each grade.

Challenge to figure out what variations mean   

“One of the real challenges is to sift through this and what it tells us,” said commission chairman Christopher Berry, principal of James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County. And the chart “doesn’t say what the preparation time is.”

Henry Johnson, interim deputy state superintendent of schools who serves on the commission, and Heather Lageman of the curriculum staff, explained how the responses were put together, with an effort to achieve consistency in reporting.

“This has been a very interesting process,” Johnson said, who oversees curriculum and accountability. It has been “creating a lot of conversations” around testing between education department staff and local schools.

The wide discrepancies left commission members with lots of questions.

“Do the jurisdictions that give more tests have better outcomes?” asked Sen. Paul Pinsky, a sponsor of the legislation that created the testing commission he’s now serving on. “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Guffrie Smith, who serves on both the State Board of Education and the commission, said the board “had a stimulating discussion” about the numbers, noting that it “doesn’t actually reflect the time spent” on the testing regime.

Pinsky suggested that the commission bring in outside experts “with no skin in the game” to help them understand testing. But with limited resources, other than MSDE staff, Pinsky suggested they find some of those experts at Maryland universities.

Smith pointed out that “testing is in a state of transition” as the state shifts to PARCC tests aligned to the Common Core curriculum standards.

New federal law reviewed

That was why the commission meeting kicked off with a presentation on the just-signed federal Every Students Succeeds Act from Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association.

ESSA, passed by Congress, replaces No Child Left Behind, and gives the states much more flexibility on how to assess students and schools as a requirement for retaining their federal funding.

The National Governors Association, which had a major role in developing the Common Core standards, was active in crafting the bill that lifts the heavy hand of federal rules from state and local schools.

There are still many different federal requirements for assessment at various grades, but they all “should have the purpose of reinforcing good teaching and provide actionable feedback to students, educators and parents,” Laine said.

Actionable also means that the tests results come back quickly enough for them to make a difference on how students are taught, one of the complaints against previous Maryland tests and even the new PARCC results, which took four or five months to be distributed.

The states are also supposed to develop a coherent system of assessment at the state and local level by measuring what matters and focusing on what tests at each level of the system can do best.

A new twist in the federal law is that the state school superintendent is required to involve the governor’s staff in the development of the plan and the governor has the opportunity to sign off. In Maryland, the governor appoints the State Board of Education and it appoints the superintendent, so governors have arms-length dealings with the superintendent. The board is currently looking for a new superintendent.

The governors wanted this provision in the law, Laine said, but “this is not a power play.”

“You want to have the governor and the chief school officer on the same page.”

Very complicated

After the meeting, Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, which strongly supported the creation of the commission, agreed that the topic of testing, like education in general, is complicated.

“The issue for us is the amount of instructional time that students lose,” Weller said.

In an interview, Berry said he would like to hear from MSEA soon on their views. There are three representatives of two teacher unions on the commission, along with two local superintendents, four legislators, two parents, two education experts, representatives of the state board and a local school board and a member of the governor’s staff.

  • Lisa Moore

    I live in HoCo and I have 2 in middle school. HS Seniors usually don’t have to take any assessments since the only ones needed for graduation are ELA 10 and Algebra I. Children are EXPECTED to have these completed before senior year. I can tell you that the “teaching to the test” for Algebra I is ever present in the middle school classroom. There is very little true Algebra instruction going on, but instead, lot’s of test prep. Pre- Algebra is now the new Algebra I and Algebra I has now become the new Algebra II. I don’t know yet what Algebra II will look like next year, but I’m going to assume that there will be statistics and pre-calculus being taught. Lots of basic foundation skills are glossed over or forgotten.

    Math tutoring in HoCo is the dirty little secret that isn’t talked about when you plan on moving into this county. The wealth of the residents in this county affords them the opportunity to pay for tutoring for their children and I can tell you that these places of learning are filled everyday after school. The reason for the “higher” scores on our PARCC assessments is because the wealthier kids get tutoring. If our classrooms spent more time teaching a true curriculum rather than trying to “game the system” by “teaching to the test”, imagine what bright and inspiring students it could be sending off to college. It is a sin how many HS graduates sit in remedial Math (non-credit) in college before being able to take any kind of college math classes. Education malpractice is what this is and if this were a surgeon doing a hack job, we would be able to sue for damages.

  • Dale McNamee

    Why not bring back the methods that turned out well educated students ready for college or trade school…Bring back vocational schools as well…

    The country did very well by doing those things…

    All of the tests and “education fads” should be banned… But, there’s money attached, so…

    “Teaching to the test” may get the students to pass the test, but are they truly educated ?

  • Don’t send your children to these government school nightmares!!! A “good” government school is one where your kid does not have to fear for his or her life (that’s what make a few in Howard good, and most in Baltimore County and City bad to horrifying). Testing? Who cares? These are daycare centers for people who should not even be in schools. It is child abuse to send your kids to most of these holes.