August 24, 2013

MARYLAND’S plunge in scores on standardized tests for elementary and middle school students has unsettled a state that, as a national leader in education, had become accustomed to yearly increases in student performance. The drop in test scores is attributable to the transition to new national academic standards that have yet to be aligned with the state assessments — and that’s lead some to question the new standards or call for a moratorium on testing.

State education officials may well need to make adjustments in how the reforms are implemented. But they should not compromise or retreat from the core changes that promise to bring needed new rigor to a high school education.

Results from the Maryland School Assessments released in July showed declines in performance in reading and math in almost every school district in the state. Even places like Montgomery County, traditionally an educational powerhouse, saw big drops. The declines were not unexpected, given the disconnect between the newly introduced Common Core standards, which aim to undergird a curriculum that will better prepare students for college or the labor market, and the continued use of tests geared to old academic standards.

“We are teaching to the future and testing to the past,” Howard County schools Superintendent Renee A. Foose wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed of the dichotomy between what is being taught and what is being tested. Given that new tests aligned with Common Core won’t be implemented until 2014-15, officials are also expecting test scores to drop in the round of testing that will accompany the upcoming school year. Some, like Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, have advocated a moratorium on the standardized tests until the new assessments are available. But, as Maryland Schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery told us, the tests still provide important information about areas of strength and needed improvement. It would be shortsighted to walk away from them.

Where some adjustment is in order is in the plan to start giving test scores added weight in teacher and principal evaluations. We are unwavering in our belief that student achievement as measured in hard data must play a substantial role in how educators are evaluated. But it’s not fair to tie a performance rating or job security to tests that are not geared to the curriculum that’s being taught. To do so could undermine support for the Common Core standards, which teachers have largely embraced because they know they’re what their students need to succeed.

Ms. Lowery said Maryland plans to apply to federal education officials for a waiver that would allow it to postpone — she stressed the word postpone — use of the tests on educator evaluations for one year. It’s a reasonable approach that should help build confidence in school reform.