Q. "When we moved from another state we bought a home in Montgomery County because we heard the public schools were good. We are now disillusioned and appalled with current practices in the secondary schools and are considering a switch to a private school.
"We believe classroom tests are supposed to help children learn and not just measure their ability. Instead, our student constantly brings home corrected answer sheets from tests taken in the classroom but is not allowed to bring the questions home. Apparently many or all of the classes (including English) are now using multiple-choice tests as the primary means of evaluation. While some practice with this kind of test prepares a child for college-admission tests, we don't believe a school system should rely on them.
"Parents are told they may come to school to look at questions but may not write down the ones that were missed by the student because the teachers have to use the tests again! Material covered in these tests is expected to be on final semester exams which count 20 percent of the semester grade.
"While we sympathize with the teachers -- they say they are swamped with paperwork -- we don't like their methods. Do all the schools in this area, including private schools, resort to rapid-scoring methods and do they use the same tests over and over?"
A. As a parent and a taxpayer, you have some legitimate gripes, and so does your student -- and apparently many others. The student representative on the Montgomery County School Board has complained of the increased use of multiple-choice tests and has a proposal pending to make all teachers return test questions, as well as answers. This will be discussed at the public board meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Educational Services Center, 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville.
Students claim many teachers use the multiple-choice tests, perhaps because so many of the schools have rapid-scoring machines. Since it may take 5-6 hours to grade essay tests, the machines offer a tempting alternative. For the so-called "convergent thinker," to whom there is only one right answer to anything, this is dandy, but the "divergent thinker" goes berserk with multiple-choice tests, for this creative child can see how other answers also can be right.
Clearly you'll want to pursue this further, but with care. If you were to go from class to class, reviewing the test questions, your child would be mortified -- and understandably so. A high-school student should be beyond that kind of interference.
Instead, take the case up the school-system ladder, not only to defend your child, but all students.
By now you've mastered the art of the parent-teacher conference, where you go in with an appointment and carry off a legal pad of questions and observations (not accusations): a meeting of equals.
Take these same skills into a conference with the principal, any teachers you want to ask and, of course, your student who can review recent tests.
You also should be resolved to listen hard to explanations. Some answers may change your mind, others may make you more determined than ever to look for a private school, or another public system. From a spot-check, the use of these tests seems to be more extensive in your county, but you'll want to do some asking on your own.
Generally, essays make up about 80 percent of an independent school's tests in the humanities: English, history, literature, social studies. Math is problem-solving, while science courses combine lab work and descriptions of lab processes with blanks to be filled and some multiple choices. Tests usually are returned so students can learn their errors.
Kenneth Muir, spokesman for Montgomery County Schools, says it's harder to give out the questions than you might think. Most teachers run off only 30-40, using them over and over until perhaps 150 students have been tested. "Not all students are honest," says Muir, "and some may pass them around as they do on some college campuses."
Giving out the test questions also might violate the copyright law, says Dr. Lois Martin, associate superintendent for instruction and program development for Montgomery County Schools. Martin, who has studied testing methods extensively, believes students should be tested in many different ways, but that a multiple-choice test, if well-written, "can be more fair than an essay" since it's graded impartially. Good tests are difficult to write, she says, which is why many are taken from teachers' manuals.
If you get nowhere with conferences at school or on the administrative level, there's always the board itself, which also decides on departmental exams (which bother some parents). They will be county-wide soon, as part of a 3-year pilot project to test learning levels of students. Parents may think better of these tests if they realize that they don't judge how well students can learn, as much as how well teachers can teach.
Actually, schools probably are getting better in the past few years because people are looking at them harder.
One is Richard Mitchell, a teacher himself and a crusty fellow who has written The Graves of Academe (Little, Brown, $11.95). He puts the responsibility squarely on those who teach teachers: the colleges that require more courses in how to teach than in what to teach. Mitchell is a pot-shotter of some excellence and the ones he makes in his book are effective.
Maybe the board needs a copy of its own.