Montgomery County education leaders are forging ahead with plans to eliminate high school final exams, even as teachers have expressed concerns that the change will affect student learning and college readiness.
Board members backed a proposal to scrap exams in September and discussed the issue again at a school board meeting last week, as they unanimously gave final approval to policy revisions that reflect the changes they endorsed.
Starting next school year, 45-minute quarterly assessments will replace two-hour semester exams, a change officials say will mean two more weeks of instructional time a year because there will no longer be special exam weeks when teaching stops.
The move comes at a time when policymakers and experts have decried the volume of student testing in the United States, with critics saying students face too many standardized exams that are of little value and take away hours that could be used for learning.
In Montgomery, Maryland’s largest school district, many high school teachers have spoken out against the board’s plan in recent weeks, saying the county’s cumulative course exams are important benchmarks and pointing out that many of the testing complaints are focused on state-required assessments.
A large number of educators object to getting rid of finals, according to a recent teacher survey. More than 90 percent of 214 staff members opposed doing away with the county’s semester-end tests in recent public comments submitted to the school system.
“I think this is a poorly thought-out solution for the excess of testing that kids are facing,” one teacher wrote.
While acknowledging the dissent, the school board moved forward. Some members noted poor results on recent state tests and said it was time for a new approach. Fewer than half of the students tested earned scores demonstrating college readiness on algebra and English 10 exams.
“The results are not good, and our achievement gap is longstanding,” said school board president Patricia O’Neill, quoting an Albert Einstein adage that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
With the structure of final exam week, “we are short-changing our high school students in terms of the amount of instruction,” O’Neill said.
Board member Philip Kauffman said the teacher comments led him to consider whether the board should be slowing down its plan, stopping or starting anew. But the recent results on state tests linked to the Common Core State Standards — known as PARCC exams — showed a need for change, he said.
“What we have really isn’t working well,” he said. “So just saying, ‘Let’s maintain the status quo,’ to me . . . I don’t think is the appropriate response.”
Montgomery school officials say the new tests will create more real-time information about how much students know and where they need additional support. The school system will collect data from the tests centrally, making it possible to compare results across schools and the district. Several officials spoke about the persistence of the achievement gap, a long-standing concern.
Community reaction has been mixed since four proposals for ending final exams were made widely public in late June.
As the board met last week, Montgomery’s association of administrators and principals supported the plan, saying students would gain nearly 10 days of instructional time and would get more frequent feedback on their progress.
Nearly three-quarters of the 149 parents who submitted recent comments said they did not want to eliminate final exams.
The end of finals in Montgomery comes as high school students have failed the tests at rates exceeding 50 percent or 60 percent in some key math courses.
How seriously students take the tests has been a broad concern because some determine ahead of time that their grades on the finals won’t affect their course grades. But the high failure rates also have raised questions about the depth of student learning and the nature of preparing for a cumulative exam.
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski said that as a parent she found the tests frustrating.
“Your child passes or fails, you don’t necessarily know by how much or what they did wrong or what that means in terms of moving forward to the next grade or the next level,” she said. After the meeting, she said she believes the board did the right thing: “I believe this is the best way to serve our students instructionally.”
Teachers who weighed in included Leah Wilson, who told the board that educators should have been participants in an “open-ended, deep discussion” about assessments and questioned whether this was the time to throw out “the one set of assessments written by MCPS to align with our curriculum.”
“Teachers don’t think so,” she said.
Two days after the board decision, Russ Rushton, head of the math department at Walt Whitman High School, said he had not heard a single positive comment from his colleagues. “People can’t believe final exams are being thrown out after being around for more than 20 years,” he said.
Rushton said he continues to believe the exams are important for college readiness and that Montgomery’s high school students actually see few cumulative tests, unless they take AP and IB courses. The board’s decision made little sense to him. “They are taking a wrong turn,” he said.
The outcome was disappointing for many high school teachers, said Chris Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. “I think teachers felt their voice was not heard as much as it could’ve been,” he said.
But with the decision made, Lloyd said teachers will work with the district to create new assessments in the 30 high school courses affected. District officials said that effort would begin in January, with teams of teachers involved in creating assessments for each course.
What the new assessments will look like is unclear. They will take varied forms, such as tests, projects and culminating papers — with tests likely to account for more than one of the four assessments a year in each course, said Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.
The new assessments will replace required tests, so there are no add-ons, Lang said. Teachers will have the option to create their own semester exams if they wish, though the quarterly assessments would still be in place.
For students, the change means they will be able to review and take home assessments, officials said.
District officials are to update the school board in June and October about progress on the plan, which is scheduled to take effect next school year.