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Teachers union, allies to seek limit on school testing

The state's largest teachers union and General Assembly allies to renew to limit standardized testing.

The state's largest teachers union and its General Assembly allies are planning to renew their push to limit the amount of time public school systems in Maryland devote to standardized testing.

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, vowed that her 73,000-member union would mobilize behind a statewide cap on testing when the legislature opens its 90-day session in January.

"We're going into another school year where some students are having 30-40-50 hours of testing and nothing's been done to curb that," Weller said. The union-backed legislation would limit the amount of time set aside for testing to 2 percent, leaving 98 percent for instruction.

That would cap testing at 21.6 hours per year in elementary and middle schools and 23.4 hours in high schools, according to legislative analysts.

The union's determination and the willingness of the bill's 2016 sponsors to repeat their push ensures a confrontation with school boards around the state, which tend to bristle at state mandates.

Steve Bounds, director of legal and policy services for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said testing should be determined at the local level. He noted that the majority of Maryland's school boards are elected.

"If schools have things out of whack, there's always a fix," Bounds said. "That's to elect the local people who make the decisions."

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, doesn't normally comment on legislation he hasn't yet seen. But a spokeswoman signaled that he likes the concept.

"As the governor has repeatedly made clear, he believes Maryland students are overtested," spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver Churchill said. "The administration will certainly review any legislation proposed this upcoming session."

Reducing testing has broad support from parents and bipartisan appeal. The House voted unanimously during the 2016 session to impose a cap, but the Senate decided to delay action until a commission on school testing could finish its report.

The panel has since completed a report and made recommendations. It did not propose a statewide cap, but did recommend that each county and Baltimore City set up a local panel to look for ways to reduce testing.

Proponents of a limit say the response from Maryland's 24 local school systems has been disappointing. The Maryland State Department of Education says only five local system accepted the recommendation without conditions. Eight rejected it outright, and others attached caveats or said nothing.

"I was disappointed that more didn't put together local stakeholder assessment groups," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a commission member.

The Prince George's County Democrat, vice chairman of the Senate committee that would consider the legislation, said the problem runs deeper than the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — the PARCC tests taken by public school students throughout the state.

"If you look at the number of hours, there's a lot of it at the local level," he said. "Some Eastern Shore counties spend a lot of time on testing, but we're not sure there's much to show from it."

The Commission to Review Maryland's Use of Assessment in Public Schools found wide variation in the number of hours of spent on locally mandated testing from county to county.

The panel reported that a fourth-grader in Dorchester County, for example, can expect to spend 41 hours in a school year taking tests required by local school officials. But a student in Caroline County, also on the Eastern Shore, would spend less than three.

Dorcherster schools Superintendent Henry Wagner said the different numbers reflect different definitions of testing among different districts. He said the numbers don't differentiate between different types of tests, including the benchmark exams his system uses to monitor how well students are learning.

Wagner said he's comfortable with the level of testing in Dorchester.

"The types of assessment that give us the quickest turnaround in terms of student mastery are the most valuable because they enable us to immediately inform instruction," he said.

He opposes the legislation.

"These are things local jurisdictions need to decide based on their optimal knowledge of the children in their district," he said.

But some proponents have lost patience with the response of state and local education officials. Del. Eric Luedtke, who sponsored last year's House bill, is among them.

"The state is saying the problem is really the locals," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "The locals are saying the problem is really the state. And nobody is doing much of anything to cut down on testing."

He plans to reintroduce his bill, as does Montgomery Democrat Roger Manno in the Senate.

Driving some of the frustration are local responses to the commission's recommendation that they set up broadly representative groups to identify excessive testing.

Among the school boards rejecting the recommendations were some with high reported testing levels. Carroll County's system, for instance, is listed as devoting 32 hours a year to testing in high school.

Its reply was summarized in the education department's report on local reactions in especially pithy terms.

"This recommendation assumes that local assessments are the cause of concerns related to the over-assessment of students. Not true," the district said.

A spokesman for the Carroll County school system could not be reached. Many local school systems' central offices were closed for the holidays.

Perceptions in the classroom are often different from those in a district's central office.

Casey Day-Kells, a fourth-grade teacher in Frederick County, said overtesting is a serious problem that's getting worse.

"So much of our time is taken with giving assessments that we're losing time to actually instruct students," she said.

Day-Kells, secretary of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said most time spent on standardized testing is aimed at fulfilling local requirements — some handed down by the county school board and some imposed by principals. She fully supports a statewide cap and will come to Annapolis to testify for it as she did last year.

"Districts need to have some accountability," Day-Kells said. "We need to set some standards, so we can preserve our students' time for learning."

Weller, the teachers union president, said that when schools spend too much time testing, the first things to be cut are programs that aren't tested such as physical education, art and music.

Those, she said, are the things students enjoy about school.

Weller said she frequently hears complaints from her members that students don't want to come to school because all they do is take tests.

"Teachers want to teach," she said. "They want their students to learn."

The state school board advised legislators during the 2016 session not to impose a statewide cap on testing.

Board President Andy Smarick, who served on the commission, said the board could discuss whether to take a position on the coming bills in January or February.

The Hogan appointee said he appreciates the pressures lawmakers are feeling from parents, teachers and administrators. But speaking for himself, he urged lawmakers to tread carefully when telling local school leaders how to conduct their business.

"Over the past decade or 15 years, I've become really attuned to the fact that statewide or federal mandates that seem smart at the moment can have a whole host of long-term unintended consequences," Smarick said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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