To Speed Grading, Tests Will Be Multiple Choice

By Nelson Hernandez and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Maryland plans to eliminate written-response questions from its high school exit exams to address long-standing complaints about how slowly test results are processed, state education officials said yesterday.

Beginning in May 2009, the Maryland school system will phase out "brief constructed responses" and "extended constructed responses" -- questions requiring a short or long written answer -- from its four tests covering algebra, English, biology and government, said Ronald A. Peiffer, the state's deputy superintendent for academic policy.

Eliminating those questions will allow the state to process test results up to four weeks faster than before, Peiffer said. The timing of the change means that the Class of 2009, the first group for which the test will count, will still be responsible for composing written answers.

Peiffer said that Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent, "met with all 24 local superintendents last Friday, and we have 100 percent agreement from them for moving in this direction." Details of the change were described in a memo obtained yesterday by The Washington Post.

Montgomery school leaders are "definitely not opposed to this" and have supported scaling the test back to a strictly multiple-choice format, said Brian Edwards, the county schools spokesman.

The move to a pure multiple-choice format addresses complaints from school systems about how long the tests take to be processed. Written-response questions take much longer to grade than multiple-choice questions because they have to be evaluated by humans, not computers. Some jurisdictions did not find out how their students had done on the High School Assessments until after the school year had begun, making it difficult to home in on students who need extra help to pass the tests.

The assessments have been subjected to increased scrutiny from local school officials and state lawmakers who are concerned about the state's inability to calculate how many students are at risk of not graduating, and the possibility that the tests will deprive hundreds or thousands of students of diplomas.

In testimony at a public hearing on the exams this week, Stephen Bedford, the chief school performance officer in Montgomery County, said the lengthy turnaround time in scoring is "too long, making it difficult to enroll students in appropriate courses or plan for interventions" for those who fail.

Peiffer and Leslie A. Wilson, an assistant state superintendent, said the state takes nine weeks to get results to school systems; with the change, and a recent switch to a new test provider, that time can be cut to three weeks.

"We need that data back as fast as possible," said John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the Prince George's County school system.

Making the tests completely multiple-choice could raise questions about how useful they are in evaluating mastery of the subjects. But state officials said that the exams would remain as challenging and accurate as before and that classroom instruction would not change.

"They now have a level of sophistication in the selected-response items they didn't have," Peiffer said. "The kinds of things we could only test with constructed-response items before now can be done in a valid and accurate way with selected-response items in a way that's just as good or better."

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