It’s Time to Take a Look at Testing
By Patricia O’Neill, Board President
The Montgomery County Board of Education recently had a lengthy discussion about testing as we received an update on the rollout of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams in our schools.
The PARCC assessments are aligned to the Common Core State Standards and are being given in Maryland and about a dozen other states across the country. These new tests replace the Maryland School Assessments (MSA) in reading and math and the High School Assessments (HSA) in Algebra 1 and English 10. The tests are very different from the MSA and HSA—they are taken online; the questions are, overall, more complex and rigorous; and PARCC is given at two different times during the school year, instead of one. (You can learn more about the tests on the MCPS PARCC website.)
Common Core-aligned exams have set off a conversation both locally and nationally about testing, the time it takes away from instruction, and the role it plays in providing students with a 21st century education.
For more than two decades, Maryland has had a statewide assessment program, starting with the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) in the early 1990s, which was followed by the MSA in 2003. Standardized testing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It holds school systems accountable for educating every child and, ultimately, we know that what gets measured, gets done. For all of its flaws, the testing and reporting rules of No Child Left Behind did require schools, districts, and states to start being more up front about their performance and sparked awareness and action around the achievement gap.
However, my Board colleagues and I—and many of the students, parents, and teachers we speak to—are very concerned about the amount of testing in our schools and how the results of these tests are being used. While good tests provide invaluable data that can be used to individualize instruction and improve teaching and learning, is it appropriate for standardized test scores to be used for teacher evaluations or as a requirement for graduation? Does it make sense for us to give a countywide final exam in the same high school subject where we give a PARCC test? And are we losing too much instructional time in the name of testing?
I think the PARCC exams have the potential to be a very useful tool for instruction. Based on the report we received at the Board table, MCPS has done a good job implementing the new assessments. There have been a few technical issues and bumps in the road, which is to be expected in a time of transition such as this. There are still a lot of unknowns, though. We won’t receive the results of these tests for many months and we do not know how the individual results will be reported to schools or parents.
We do know that state testing impacts our schools for several weeks—schedules are rearranged, resources are stretched thin, and the whole process puts stress on our staff and our students. With PARCC being given in two different sections, these types of disruptions will occur twice during the school year. Add national tests—like AP and IB—and local tests and quizzes, and it’s fair to ask if our students are being tested too much.
State Superintendent Lillian Lowery, in a March 6, 2015, opinion piece published in The Washington Post, noted that she has asked local school officials to review our testing polices and specifically asked that we identify opportunities to potentially reduce the number of tests given and eliminate any tests that seem redundant. The Board is going to review all of the tests our students take, including national, state, and local assessments, and figure out whether those tests are meeting the needs of our students. Then, working with our district leaders, staff, and community members, we will consider changes to our testing and grading policies and practices.
In the meantime, my Board colleague Phil Kauffman and I have asked our Interim Superintendent, Larry Bowers, for some relief. We sent a memo asking him to consider exempting secondary school students from countywide final exams in subjects where they took a state exam, either PARCC or HSA (Algebra 1, Algebra 2, English 10, Biology, and National, State, and Local Government). After speaking with Mr. Bowers, as well as principals and administrators, it does not appear practical to make such a change this year. But he has assured me that staff will consider this change for the 2015-2016 school year.
Either way, I want to assure our students, parents, staff, and community members that the Board is concerned about the amount of testing in our schools and we are going to do something about it. We believe that testing is an important part of education, but we must make sure that we strike a balance that meets the needs of our students.