By Len Lazarick
After months of hearings and meetings since November, members of the Maryland commission on school testing are getting frustrated as they struggle to achieve their task — reducing the amount of mandated testing in public schools.
On Wednesday, as they worked on recommendations for the report they hope to finalize next week, teachers and legislators on the 19-member panel noted that their recommendations may improve the efficiency of the testing and eased some financial and staffing issues, but they hadn’t actually reduced the amount of testing.
“I don’t know if we’ve done our job if we’re not cutting down on testing,” said Alohaa Chin, representing the Baltimore Teachers Union.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, lead sponsor of the Senate bill creating the commission, noted that they had made recommendations that would increase spending, such as technology grants to aid testing and having test coordinators in every Maryland public school.
“We want some objective change for teachers in the classroom,” giving them “some relief from testing,” Pinsky said.
The group did tentatively approve a request to the state Board of Education to eliminate an eighth grade civics test and replace a high school biology test. But that was about it for attempts to actually cut down on mandated state and local testing.
“Nothing we’re doing now is reducing the amount of testing,” said Laura Potter, a high school math teacher in Harford County, where she was teacher of the year.
The group did tentatively approve a number of recommendations. They include:
- Annual reports from local superintendents on the amount of testing.
- Timely results for all mandated testing, particularly so teachers could use them to improve instruction. Henry Johnson, deputy superintendent of schools and a commission member, assured the panel that test data would be available by July 15, but it was unclear whether that would filter down to classroom educators.
- The commission also wants each county school system to set up its own commission to review testing.
- They also approved a number of steps to improve communications with parents about when, how and why testing would done, and what it would be used for.
Christopher Berry, the principal of James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County who chairs the commission, conceded that, “we have not reduced the number of hours of testing,” though their recommendations may make the testing better.
Timing may have been off
He said the timing of the commission’s work might have been off, because it wasn’t till December that Congress finally passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which replaces No Child Left Behind in guiding federal funding of K-12 education.
The act pushes much of the testing regime back to the states, but the regulations to implement it are just being rolled out, Berry said, so it is not clear what testing the U.S. Department of Education will require in exchange for federal school aid.
“It’s all federally mandated,” Berry said.
Del. Eric Ebersole, a retired high school math teacher who was lead House sponsor of the commission and also serves on it, shares the frustration.
“We’re struggling to push past the structures that are in place to reduce the amount of testing,” Ebersole told MarylandReporter.com. “Can we make more room for instruction?”
That was the main goal of the Maryland State Education Association, the teachers union which strongly supported formation of the commission.
“The overall goal is to reduce testing, ” said MSEA vice president Cheryl Bost who has attends the commission sessions. “I hope there’s more meat in reducing testing” in the final report. “A lot of the overtesting is at the local level.”
The bureaucracy is thick to the point of being impenetrable. Need an example? They needed a study simply to identify which tests are mandatory, and which are given just for the hell of it. Study results aren’t complete yet, according to the Commission’s website.