A Testing Strategy that Improves Student Learning
By Patricia B. O’Neill, Board President
Assessment is an important part of any educational program—that was true before the era of No Child Left Behind and it is true today. But over the past several years, our students have lost too much instructional time to tests that really aren’t improving teaching and learning, and so it is time that our assessment strategy evolves to better support student learning.
For the past year, the Montgomery County Board of Education, along with the leadership of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), has been reviewing its assessment strategy: What tests do we give? Why do we give them? And are they helping our teachers teach and our students learn?
Despite what some might think, our decision to replace two-hour semester final exams with quarterly marking period assessments is not about making life easier for kids. Rather, we are building a more thoughtful, complex assessment structure that will restore valuable instructional time to our schools and make sure our educators have timely information that allows them to offer support to students when and where it is needed.
Our decision will restore at least two weeks of instructional time in high school by eliminating final exam weeks in January and June, when students take tests and receive no instruction (and that doesn’t include time lost to final exam review). Instead, students will take centrally developed assessments during each marking period that will be given during the regular class period.
Some of these quarterly assessments will be unit tests that will feel very much like traditional final exams. Others may be projects that students will complete to demonstrate their understanding. Regardless of their form, these assessments will be rigorous, consistently graded across the district, and the results will be a significant part of a student’s final grade.
Most importantly, the results of these quarterly assessments will provide valuable data throughout the school year. This will allow teachers to help students who are struggling throughout the year and let school leaders and central office staff assess the effectiveness of our instructional program in an ongoing manner.
We are not alone in this move. Other schools systems—such as Loudon County in Virginia—are moving away from end-of-semester finals, while many other school systems don’t have them at all. Many colleges and universities are also reducing the number of midterms and finals their student take. For instance, in 2010, Harvard University made the decision to no longer require three-hour final exams. No one is accusing Harvard of not being rigorous.
And while MCPS may not give semester final exams in high school starting next school year, our high school students will certainly take plenty of tests. All high school students are taking state exams at the end of Algebra 1, English 10, Biology, and Government, which must be passed in order to graduate. More than two-thirds of our students take at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam while in high school. And a new Maryland law, effective this year, requires all public school Grade 11 students to pass an exam that demonstrates college-and-career readiness. In MCPS, students will have to take the SAT, the ACT, or the ACCUPLACER exam.
The Board of Education has been very transparent throughout our discussions on this proposal, and we are still gathering public comment on changes to our grading and reporting policy, and options for determining semester grades without final exams. We hope our students, staff, parents, and community members will visit the MCPS website to learn more about our plans and offer their thoughts.
But the bottom line is that replacing final exams with quarterly assessments is the right thing to do to ensure our students have the skills and knowledge they need for success in the 21st century.