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Fix the teaching/testing disconnect in Maryland

Arne Duncan

The release of the Maryland School Assessment results — anticipated early next week — will surely send a ripple of shock to parents across the state. Educators are bracing for dips in math performance. At first glance, the scores will appear to indicate that student achievement has fallen, when in fact they reflect a mismatch between what is taught and what is tested.

Maryland, like most other states throughout the nation, is in the process of transitioning to new reading and math curricula aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which show great promise for ensuring students are equipped with 21st century skills. Howard and a number of other counties began the transition two years ago, and all counties are expected to complete the transition this year. However, the tests aligned to this new curriculum are under development, so states are administering the old tests. In essence, we are teaching to the future and testing to the past.

The discrepancy between what is taught and tested is particularly problematic in math because the new curriculum addresses fewer topics in greater depth each year. Consequently, students are being tested on some topics that were not taught at all during the school year.

The weight of this mismatch goes far beyond shocking news for parents. The federal and state accountability programs for schools, school systems and teachers all rely on the outdated tests. Maryland's accountability model calls for schools to show higher test scores each year. This means that schools and systems will be penalized if their test scores do not show steady improvement through the transition to the new curriculum.

New teacher and principal evaluations also are scheduled for mandatory implementation this year, as required by the terms of the state's federal Race to the Top grant. A significant portion of the evaluation is based on student performance on the old tests. While teachers are expected to teach the richer, more advanced Common Core content, doing so could result in falling test scores for their students and reflect negatively on their own professional records.

Classroom teachers are on the front lines of implementing all of the reforms. Ultimately, success or failure hinges on their buy-in. Yet, the message to teachers is absurd: Teach to the future for the sake of your students, but for your own sake, be sure your students do better than ever before on yesterday's tests.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been open and responsive to concerns nationwide about the aggressive reform agenda. On June 18, he announced that state superintendents now have an opportunity to apply for waivers to lessen the impact of these outdated tests. Specifically, states that apply for these waivers by Sept. 30 may be granted up to one additional year before using the new teacher evaluations for personnel decisions. States piloting the new assessments also would be excused from "double testing" students with both the old and new tests during the same school year.

Full details about the waivers have not yet been provided, so the impact remains unclear. They will likely fall short of resolving the disconnect between the curriculum and assessments. However, should the Maryland State Department of Education apply for and receive waivers, it would demonstrate support for our teachers and students without compromising progress in implementing reforms.

The entire nation is watching yet another highly publicized national reform movement that promises to raise the level of rigor and achievement for all students. Our charge is both urgent and profound — ensuring that today's children have the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the 21st century. Just as we teach our students how to adapt to an ever-changing world, we too must be willing and able to adapt — both by implementing needed reforms and by recognizing and responding appropriately to the pitfalls and unexpected outcomes that inevitably arise along the way.

Renee A. Foose is superintendent of the Howard County Public School System. Her email is rfoose@hcpss.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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