Howard Kass would like to help his son, who struggles with math at Churchill High School in Potomac.
Kass and his son’s tutor want to see the mistakes the boy, who just finished ninth grade, made on his tests, but his teachers won’t send the tests home because they want to use them again. Kass has asked that the policy be changed but has been stifled by what I consider Montgomery County’s indifference and obsession with test security, a problem for many parents.
As Kass wrote in an e-mail to Churchill Principal Joan L. Benz, he knows teachers review exam results at school, but if a child didn’t get a good grade, “going over it in class is not much use.” Refusing to let parents help because of cheating fears “seems to me to be a weak excuse,” he said.
Benz directed Kass to Edward C. Nolan, the county coordinator of math programs. The e-mail exchange that followed will be familiar to any parent who has tried to get a school system to explain an ill-considered policy. The fact that Montgomery County, one of our nation’s best school systems, sees nothing wrong with it makes it worse.
From the e-mails Kass sent me, Nolan appears to be a capable and conscientious educator who, like many in his position, thinks the best way to deal with complaining parents is jargon-filled optimism.
“We do understand your frustration with secure assessments and continue to seek options for balancing assessment consistency, supporting student growth, and the capacity to develop new, high quality materials,” he wrote to Kass. “That is why we have non-secure formative assessments to provide information to students and parents about progress during unit instruction.” (Nolan confirmed the accuracy of the quotes.)
Kass replied that most of his children’s teachers did not return any county-wide tests. Even school-administered tests were infrequently returned. He asked whether the school system actually counted how many marked tests went home. He asked what he could do to get the policy changed. Nolan wrote, “Some assessments are secure because we use the same assessments from year-to-year and desire to maintain the security of these items on these assessments. As our workgroups look at many aspects of our curriculum and its implementation, all of these pieces will be considered.”
Kass never lost his temper, even when told there was no room for him on the workgroups. Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said he was welcome to make a comment at a board meeting.
Three years ago, I wrote about a Fairfax County parent who had the same complaint as Kass. He persuaded the McLean High School principal to order her faculty to send graded tests home, a rare but insignificant victory. When that column appeared, scores of parents from across the country shared their frustration that their kids couldn’t bring tests home as the parents had done when they were in school. Like me, they thought giving struggling students a chance to assess their wrong answers with a motivated parent or tutor was a good thing, not a security threat. End-of-year tests could be kept at school, but holding back chapter tests was idiotic.
In response to that column, a Fairfax parent, who was also a teacher, said she was mystified by the ban on returning tests. A top student at West Potomac High School in Alexandria said she was not allowed to look at one of her tests to see why she got a D. A part-time tutor in California, who is also a full-time teacher, said, “it’s not only absurd but unethical” for a teacher to withhold a test that is a major part of a student’s grade.
One Montgomery workgroup member has volunteered to argue Kass’s case. Given officials’ resistance to sharing exams, here and elsewhere, he is unlikely to prevail. This is one more sign of increased standardized testing, and the accompanying fetish for test security, getting in the way of helping children learn.