The Montgomery County school board backed a plan to end final exams in middle-school- level courses Tuesday and is looking closely at a proposal to scrap high school finals, a shift that comes as officials in Loudoun County pursue a major change in how it will assess its students.
Loudoun administrators say they have dropped the requirement that all high school teachers give midterm and final exams as part of a push toward more project-based learning — such as hands-on experiments and simulations — which educators believe better prepare students for life outside academia.
Under the old requirement in Loudoun, the tests were worth 20 percent of a student’s grade, took up two weeks of school and were given in all classes, not just core academic subjects.
“We’re trying to make sure the students have the 21st-century skills they need for the modern workforce, which is not necessarily sitting for a long test,” said Nereida Gonzalez-Sales, Loudoun’s director of high school education.
The rethinking of the role and value of exams in the two Washington-area jurisdictions comes as parents and educators nationally have voiced broad concerns about students being tested too much and the toll it takes on instructional time.
In Loudoun and Montgomery, high school students take state-required assessments in some courses, along with Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. Both school districts set aside days at the end of each semester for final exams, which educators say amounts to lost instructional time.
A discussion about remaking final exams went before the Montgomery school board Tuesday, with members voting unanimously to endorse the interim superintendent’s decision to no longer give two-hour finals in middle-school-level courses.
The Montgomery board’s vote also steered a more far-reaching proposal to its policy management committee. If implemented, that proposal would mean no second-semester final exams for the coming school year in a handful of high-school-level courses, such as Algebra 1 and English 10 that have state assessments.
For 2016-2017, the proposal would end traditional two-hour finals and replace them with other assessments that could include unit tests, projects, portfolios, essays and document-based questions. Those assessments would be taken during marking periods and would be centrally developed so that results could be compared across the district.
Under Montgomery’s current practices, final exams are worth 25 percent of a student’s semester grade, so changes in exam practices would have an effect on grading policies. The board’s policy management committee is expected to discuss possible changes and report to the board in October. “This is not the end of the conversation,” said Patricia O’Neill, the school board president.
As Montgomery has reconsidered finals, some supporters of the tests have said they are helpful in preparing college-bound students for the cumulative exams they will face as undergraduates and beyond.
School Board member Phil Kauffman (At Large) said Tuesday that many students in Montgomery get testing experience taking AP exams and other assessments.
“The fact that we may not be doing our own two-hour exam, I don’t know that that’s suddenly going to be a huge setback to students,” he said.
Katie Spurlock, a parent of two children and a former teacher, told the school board that the old exams are not working.
“Students are spending too much time testing and not enough time learning,” she said, noting that results come in too late to be useful and that large percentages of English language learners, students with disabilities and those impacted by poverty “fail exams each June and receive no response from our schools, just a failing grade, documenting that they haven’t measured up, yet again.”
The recommended changes would allow teachers more time for teaching and more timely feedback, she said. “Students who fail the assessments should expect that their teachers respond with re-teaching and perhaps re-assessment, increasing their learning and success,” Spurlock said.
Diego Uriburu, a Hispanic community leader, said parents his organization has interviewed solidly favored the recommended proposal. Parents say they believe the school system should be held accountable early on in the instructional process, after unit tests, not at the end of the semester or school year, he said. Parents also agree that having more instruction would benefit their children, he said.
Final exams have been a flash point in Montgomery in recent years, as high school students in Maryland’s largest school system have failed them in key math courses at steep rates.
In Loudoun, teachers will be able to give final and midterm exams if they choose, but administrators are considering putting a cap on how big a role they can play in a student’s grade. Teachers would still give tests throughout the year to measure a student’s grasp on the material, but the change would allow teachers to adjust how they present the material rather than finding out from a semester-end exam that a student is floundering, spokesman Wayde Byard said.
Mary Zell Gaelin, a 2015 Loudoun County High School graduate, said the requirement meant that she had a written midterm and final exam in physical education, where she was quizzed on how to play football. And it felt redundant in Advanced Placement classes, where all students have to take an end-of-year College Board exam to earn college credit. To her, the requirement heaped on unneeded stress.
“I don’t think anyone likes the added pressure,” said Gaelin, who is headed to Longwood University in Farmville, Va.
For two years in a row, Loudoun has canceled midterm exams because winter weather caused school closures. This year, the decision to cancel midterms prompted a discussion about whether it was worth continuing having the tests. A survey of 28 middle school and high school principals found that only one favored the testing requirement. Of the rest, 16 wanted no midterm or final exams, and 11 said they should be administered in a different format.
Loudoun School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) pointed out that some teachers may still give finals and that students already are taking state standardized tests, which cover a year’s worth of material. He said he believes that testing plays too large a role in education.
“If all we’re focused on is developing these test-taking skills . . . that seems to be in large measure missing the ball and missing out on the point of education,” Fox said. “The point of education is not to prepare kids for more education. The point of education should be to prepare kids for success in other areas of their lives.”