Montgomery parents say Maryland standardized testing is outdated

Among parents in Montgomery County, standardized testing is facing new opposition: Why, they ask, must their students take outdated exams that no longer reflect their classroom teaching?

Many are urging that the Maryland School Assessments (MSAs) scheduled for March be canceled.

In recent weeks, objections to the tests have come from several quarters. A teacher launched a petition. PTA leaders wrote letters. Two Maryland lawmakers are drafting bills. The issue is expected to gain more attention in January, when the General Assembly session begins.

The standardized exams, which go back a decade, are given to students in grades 3 through 8 for math and reading; science is tested in grades 5 and 8. Results are used as a marker of accountability, showing how well schools do in educating their students.

But increasingly, critics contend the tests lack purpose — and take away time that could be used for instruction — because they do not reflect the Common Core standards now being taught.

The Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA) urged state officials in a letter this month to seek a federal waiver that would allow the state to skip the test altogether. In Montgomery, more than 50,000 students take the exam in March.

“This is kind of crazy — that we’re having kids sit for an exam that we’re no longer teaching to and haven’t been for a few years,” said Janette Gilman, president of the MCCPTA.

But state and federal officials see it differently. They say exams tied to the Common Core will be rolled out for all students next school year and in the meantime standardized tests are required by law and remain useful.

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery was unequivocal about the idea of pursuing a federal waiver from the test mandate. “Absolutely not,” she said.

Lowery said she recognizes the misalignment, particularly in math, but believes the MSAs provide information that is important to educators. In professional development and other areas, she said, “it helps focus our efforts.”

“We’re being very thoughtful, very deliberate,” Lowery said.

Montgomery’s Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has not jumped into the fray of late, but he may have inspired some of it: Months ago, he attracted attention by calling for a three-year moratorium on standardized tests amid the transition to the Common Core.

The school system will comply with state laws and policies on the issue, but Starr remains concerned about giving tests that “are not providing meaningful data anymore,” Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said. “They are really lame-duck assessments at this point.”

Still, “if, in the end, we have to administer the MSA, we’re going to do so,” Tofig said.

Last month, Tiferet Ani, a ­middle-school teacher in Montgomery, launched an online petition urging that the MSAs be canceled, making a case that “the scores will not be looked at, and it is a waste of taxpayer money and instructional time for students.”

The petition has nearly 800 names.

Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the organization cited Ani’s petition on its Facebook page, urging that the tests be canceled. “Our view is that it’s common sense, and they should do it,” he said.

“How can it be used as an accountability tool when it’s not aligned with what’s being taught?” he asked.

Next school year, statewide testing is expected to comport with Common Core standards, with students being given Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. State officials say PARCC tests are being field-tested this year by a small fraction of Maryland students — one class at every school.

State Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said last week that she is drafting an emergency bill calling for the state to push for a federal waiver. She said she also wants to know which is more costly — penalties for forgoing the tests or the expense of administering it. King said she would introduce the measure as the legislative session opens.

“I’m just not convinced that giving a test for the sake of giving a test is the right thing,” King said. “I’m looking for what the benefit is to children. Is this going to help them in their education?”

Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), who is also a Montgomery social studies teacher, said he will introduce a companion bill. Luedtke co-wrotean op-ed piece in November on the question. “There’s a complete disconnect,” he said. “Why would we give a test on something kids are not being taught? It defies logic.”

Federal education officials said that states must give standardized tests under federal law and are not being allowed to simply skip standardized testing for a year. Valuable information is still gleaned from results, even if there is not full alignment, officials said.

Some waivers are being considered when students are participating in early field-tests of Common Core-related exams, to avoid situations of double-testing, a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department said.

The significance of test misalignment is an issue of debate, experts say. W. James Popham, professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, said the importance of such test differences can be overstated. “It’s not like they’re being taught mathematics and they’re being tested on physics,” he said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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