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Education leaders call for moratorium on testing

Credit and DebtJustice SystemSchoolsU.S. Department of EducationS. Dallas Dance

A number of education leaders are calling for a moratorium on annual student assessments until Maryland switches to tests that match a new curriculum being implemented in classrooms.

The state teachers union and school superintendents association said Wednesday that they would support a halt to the Maryland School Assessment, which is given every year to students in the third through eighth grades.

"We should just not give the current MSA. Just stop giving it tomorrow," said Joshua Starr, Montgomery County's superintendent.

Calls for suspending the tests followed the state's release of the most recent student test scores, which dropped significantly for the first time in a decade. State officials blamed the poor showing on rapid changes to the curriculum, called the Common Core.

Some school districts had already begun using the new curriculum, but the new tests to accompany it will not be ready until the 2014-2015 school year.

However, calls for the moratorium face opposition from state schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires testing in those grades. States have requested and received waivers from parts of the law in the past several years but not from the assessment requirement.

Lowery would not support seeking a waiver from the annual assessments, according to William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. Reinhard added: "She has made her feelings known to the state board."

The MSAs, which were given this year to 300,000 students, cost the state more than $9 million to administer. The Common Core tests are expected to be slightly less expensive.

Starr has been a vocal advocate for a two-year moratorium for several months.

The Maryland State Education Association, the teachers' union, on Wednesday expressed support for the first time ofs a suspension of testing for next school year.

"The MSA will not provide valuable information on how well students and teachers are doing," said Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the union. Giving the test, he said, would only use up "valuable time from teachers and students who are trying to get the Common Core right."

Schools across the state began putting in place new standards for what should be taught in kindergarten through high school last year, but the state is still giving the old MSA tests, which are not designed to measure learning under the new curriculum. Next school year, the state will begin field-testing the new assessments, called PARCC, and in the 2014-2015, those tests will be given to everyone for the first time.

The changes in what is taught, state leaders said, are what caused the drop in test scores, particularly math scores. The slides were seen in the same grades and subjects in most districts.

The declines were just as significant in high-performing districts that had previously seen steady gains on the tests. Districts that have made the biggest shifts in teaching to the Common Core — Baltimore City and Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties — were also those that saw some of the largest drops.

Starr is the only superintendent in the state to publicly favor a moratorium. The Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, the group representing superintendents, supports suspending testing until the new assessment is used.

Carl Roberts, who heads the organization, said a moratorium "would allow local educators to focus on the future instead of assessing learning based on content no longer addressed in the curricula."

McDaniel College professor Francis "Skip" Fennell, who has helped to write the Common Core math curriculum, said he believes teachers are reaching a tipping point where they cannot focus on so many changes at once.

"Anybody could have seen this" coming, he said of the misalignment between testing and curriculum. He pointed out that teachers are being asked to change how and what they teach while also being mindful of the old tests.

"What drummer do you want march to?" Fennell said. "One would like to think that a policy would be a bit more flexible."

Most of those in favor of the moratorium are still strong supporters of testing, but they believe there are too many changes being made in schools in the next year for the tests to be reliable indicators of how students are doing.

"I believe in using good standardized assessments," Starr said. "We just have to have the right assessments for the right purposes. That is not what we have here."

Particularly onerous to superintendents and teachers is the requirement that school districts begin using the results of the tests to evaluate teachers beginning next school year.

Educators across the state are concerned that it would not be fair to judge teachers based on test scores that don't measure what they are teaching. In addition, administrators worry that teachers would be less likely to make the switch from the old curriculum to the Common Core if they know they are being judged by the old tests.

Baltimore County Superintendent S. Dallas Dance said Wednesday that he supports a delay in using test scores to evaluate teachers. But he is not in favor of a two-year moratorium on testing because the MSAs will still provide helpful data, particularly in the area of reading.

The U.S. Department of Education has said it will consider requests that the teacher evaluation be put off for a year. Maryland has not sought a waiver but is expected to soon.

In addition, the state is expected to ask whether students who take the field test of the PARCC assessment this coming school year can be exempt from the MSA to avoid double testing.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

owie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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