Maryland’s largest school system will scrap high school final exams next school year, ending a longtime practice that lost support amid a growing national concern about too much student testing and the toll it takes on instructional time.
Montgomery County’s Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate the two-hour semester-end exams and replace them with shorter assessments taken during the quarter that could take different forms: tests, essays, portfolios and projects.
Board President Patricia O’Neill said that the panel has long had an interest in scaling back the volume of tests the school system administers and that it can’t do away with federally mandated state tests.
“While we can’t control the outside assessments that are imposed on us, we can control the assessments we impose on our kids,” she said, noting that students will still have to demonstrate their competence, just differently. “We’re trying to regain more instructional time. Parents and educators want more teaching and less testing.”
Montgomery’s decision comes as jurisdictions across the country have taken a wide range of approaches to course final exams, with some recently rethinking the tests as their students also face batteries of state-level tests that are linked to promotion and graduation.
Virginia’s Loudoun County recently dropped a requirement that teachers must give midterms and finals. The move was part of a focus on more project-based learning, which many say better prepares students for the real world outside the classroom.
Deborah Stipek, a professor and former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, said she has seen “huge variability” among school district practices with final exams and said Montgomery’s change could provide teachers with more timely information for improving instruction and identifying student needs.
“I think it’s a great thing,” she said. “Using shorter-term assessments over the semester — and a variety of strategies — all of that is very good practice.”
The board’s action leaves high school final exams intact for the first semester of this school year. For the second semester, no finals will be given in courses linked to Maryland High School Assessment or to Common Core-aligned PARCC tests; finals will go on in other high-school-level courses for the last time.
The action, which endorsed a recommendation Interim Superintendent Larry A. Bowers made in July, marks a major change in the high-performing 156,000-student district, where there was an increasing focus on test fatigue. Montgomery’s twice-yearly finals are given to many students who also take state assessments, college admission tests, and Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.
Final exams also have a troubled history in Montgomery, where high school students have failed math finals at rates of more than 50 or 60 percent in some courses. The poor results, which first came to wide public attention in 2013, have left district officials scrambling for solutions. Although Montgomery’s students test well on state-level exams and the SAT, high failure rates on county final exams have persisted; not having final exams would appear to essentially eliminate the issue.
Montgomery officials say the new marking-period assessments will provide more real-time data about student progress and free up hours for instruction. High school finals and related review days consume at least a week each semester and sometimes as long as two weeks.
“This seems like an appropriate response to a system that wasn’t working, and particularly at a time when there was so much anxiety about testing in the county,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a Montgomery parent and president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
Not everyone was sold on the idea of ending the exams.
Many have raised concerns about college preparation, saying the cumulative nature of a two-hour exam gets students ready for what they will experience in college courses. Others have challenged that view, saying students already experience cumulative tests in AP courses or through state-required testing.
Frances Frost, president of Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, said she remained unclear about which problem the board was trying to solve in getting rid of finals.
“I think we need final exams,” Frost said. “I think there needs to be a standard form of assessment across the county because that’s one way we make sure that every child is getting the same curriculum, the same challenge, in every school.”
School officials said Tuesday the new shorter assessments will be centrally developed so that data can be compared across the school system. The board tentatively approved a policy that was revised to reflect the new approach to exams, and that policy is out for public comment.
There have not been any decisions about how grading practices will shift as a result of the end of final exams, but school officials posted four options online Tuesday. Final exams are now worth 25 percent of a student’s semester course grade.
Three of the new options rely on a semester course’s two marking-period grades to come up with a total course grade, doing away with any category for final exams. The fourth option would change the final exam category to a teacher-developed “final evaluation” administered in class that would count for 25 percent of a course grade.
School officials said they contacted more than 20 school systems, including 13 from Maryland, to get a sense of trends and practices, finding great variation among assessments and how grades are calculated.
Public comments on grading practices may be submitted online through Oct. 19.
“I think the main message right now is we want to hear from our community their take on these grading options,” said Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.