State limits on school testing to have little effect in most districts

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Public school teachers and parents have railed for years against the time and attention devoted to testing. They argued that preparing students to take state-mandated standardized tests disrupted the school schedule and took time away from learning.

State lawmakers responded to the complaints by creating a commission to review testing policies and then passing legislation this year that caps the number of hours students can be tested each year.

Most of the state's school districts already fall within the limits, a review of data released by the state in May shows. Some school administrators, meanwhile, many of whom believe testing yields valuable information for teachers, object to the state involving itself in what they believe should be a local decision.

But parents, teachers and other supporters say the caps are a step in the right direction.

"It is the whole education environment that is important," said Elizabeth Ysla Leight, president of the Maryland PTA Council. "Not just a couple of scores."

The law, which took effect this month, now limits mandated testing to 2.2 percent of classroom time a year, or about 24 hours in elementary and middle school and 26 hours in high school. For eighth grade, in which students are subjected to more tests, the cap is set at 2.3 percent.

Only three school systems in the state — Cecil, Frederick and St. Mary's — will have to reduce testing times in more than one grade to meet the limits, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. Anne Arundel, Queen Anne's and Caroline counties will have to reduce testing in one grade.

Del. Eric Luedtke, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the legislation, noted that the law requires school systems to discuss the amount and type of testing at each grade level with their teachers unions. He said he hopes such an "institutional review" will reduce testing.

Cecil County Schools Superintendent D'Ette W. Devine, president of the state's superintendents association, opposed the law. She said she now hopes to work out a compromise with the county teacher's union that will allow her to go over the cap.

"We have been pretty collaborative over time," Devine said. "I think we have a pretty good shot of meeting some common ground in this."

She said a new statewide social studies test to be given to eighth grade students in the 2018-2019 school year will add to the list of annual assessments, leaving local school systems with very little wiggle room.

"There is a great deal that locals don't have control over," she said. "We don't have a lot of superfluous testing."

The state teachers union, which pushed hard for the new law, says the number of hours of testing districts are reporting to the state may not be consistent or accurate. Some members have said that some testing is not being reported to the state.

"We want to see it in practice and how it is going to work," said Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association. "What we hear year after year from educators is that the amount of testing is very disruptive. The amount of autonomy they have as educators is diminished because of test prep."

Opposition to testing grew several years ago, after Maryland switched to the new education standards called the Common Core. Local school systems had to adopt a new test written by a consortium of states to fit the new standards.

The new tests, written by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, were given twice during the school year, and required more than eight hours in total to complete. Many of the districts gave the exams online, which required staggering test times, because some schools didn't have enough computers.

The reaction was swift and harsh. Parents, teachers and administrators complained that the tests were gobbling up important class time, but weren't providing teachers with immediate feedback about student performance.

Leight, the state PTA council president, said testing is parents' leading concern.

"They felt their children were being over-tested," she said.

Parents also complained that teachers were being used as proctors, she said, leaving some classes without teachers and students allowed to watch movies.

The council supported the limits.

Concerns about testing have been widespread.

"The populist movement against over-testing has brought together a novel coalition of conservative legislators and legislators who are more inclined to support the teachers union perspective," said John Woolums, director of government relations at the Maryland Association of School Boards.

In response, the state reduced the number of hours devoted to PARCC testing. The commission appointed by the General Assembly required districts to report every mandated test given at each grade.

The survey showed that local testing took up more time than testing required by the state. It also showed inconsistencies in how school districts were reporting their testing, causing confusion that local officials say continues today.

Local school administrators say the focus on limiting testing has encouraged districts to voluntarily reduce the scope and length of their tests. Russell Brown, chief of accountability for Baltimore County schools, said the county has reduced testing incrementally over time.

Local school systems have long given tests several times a year to determine whether students were learning or falling behind. But those tests sometimes duplicated the PARCC exams. As a result, Brown said, the county stopped giving tests normally taken in the spring.

"We have been trying to minimize since the 2014-2015" school year, he said.

In Frederick County, the school board directed administrators to reduce testing.

"We had to step back and say, 'What do we need systemically?'" said Kevin Cuppett, the county's executive director for curriculum instruction and innovation. "Maybe we can assess less frequently."

The district dropped some tests and scaled back others. They are above the testing cap but won't have to reduce many more hours of testing to meet the requirements of the law, he said.

Christopher Berry, head of the state testing commission, said "parents should feel good that the education community has responded to their concerns.

"Are we there yet? No," he said. "But we are moving in the right direction."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

@lizbowie

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°