A Maryland commission on public school testing is urging the state’s 24 school systems to closely examine the type and volume of the exams they administer to students and to propose potential changes to local school boards.
In a newly released report, the Commission to Review Maryland’s Use of Assessments and Testing in Public Schools stopped short of suggesting an across-the board cap on testing, and the group’s findings were not as far-reaching as some had hoped. But commission chairman Christopher Berry, principal at James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County, said he hopes the findings will spur action in exam programs statewide.
He said new district-level committees will examine how tests inform instruction, whether they are duplicative and whether teachers see alignment between tests and classroom work.
“There have been a lot of changes on the national landscape where assessment is concerned,” he said. “The recommendations of the commission can and should serve as a catalyst for making assessment work more effectively for students, educators and parents.”
Testing has been at the forefront of the national education discussion, especially as students in numerous states, including Maryland, have been transitioning to new exams based on the Common Core. In October, a study released by the Council of the Great City Schools found that a typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade.
President Obama days later acknowledged that his policies have helped lead to overtesting and said that he wants students to take fewer, better tests. And reducing the role of testing was a major theme on Capitol Hill during debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in the fall with bipartisan support.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration proposed new rules for K-12 standardized testing to implement the new law, including a program to encourage states to develop “innovative tests” and regulations that would allow districts to do away with state tests in high schools and instead administer the SAT, ACT or other “nationally recognized” assessments.
Reaction to the Maryland commission’s report was mixed, with some saying they had hoped for broader reform. Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), who sponsored a bill this year that would have limited standardized testing to 2 percent of instruction time, said the recommendations do not go far enough.
“I don’t think passing the buck is a complete solution,” Luedtke said. “They should have called for more reductions in state-mandated testing.”
Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), who has served on the Montgomery school board, said she also was disappointed in the scope of the report. She served on the commission but said she missed several meetings because of scheduling conflicts.
“I had really hoped we could cut the testing time,” King said, adding that there is a strong feeling in the General Assembly that students are overtested and that legislation is needed to address the loss of instructional time. “I don’t think this is going to close the door on the issue.”
The testing commission made a number of recommendations that would require state officials to act. It urges, for example, that a state-required social studies assessment for middle school students not be implemented as planned. Berry said that although social studies is important, “our thought was that’s going in the wrong direction. We should be decreasing the assessment footprint, not increasing it.”
The commission made other recommendations that seek to limit testing disruption.
It recommended that state-required exams — called HSAs — be given over several class periods, rather than in one long session, so that schools are not as greatly impacted. The panel also suggested loosening restrictions on which school staff members can administer exams, pulling fewer educators away from classroom duties.
For the coming school year, the group urged that the state require students to take biology HSA exams but not be required to pass them because new science standards are not fully aligned with the longtime tests.
Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents more than 70,000 educators, said she was hoping for more concrete proposals for change. “We think the commission was really cautious in their recommendations,” she said. “They didn’t go after overtesting in the way we had hoped.”
But Weller said she was encouraged by the idea of locally analyzing the value of tests. “A lot of the tests that are given are actually district tests, not necessarily statewide tests,” she said.
The 19-member commission met from November to June, hearing testimony from groups representing students, teachers, administrators, superintendents, school boards and PTAs.
Del. Eric D. Ebersole (D-Howard), a teacher and a member of the commission, said the panel looked not only at ways to reduce testing but also at whether tests are unnecessary or duplicative. The goal was not to scrap testing, he said.
“We weren’t going to sweep the broom and all the testing would go out the window,” he said.
Emma Brown contributed to this report.