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Local school leaders ask state to delay high-stakes graduation tests

Local school leaders ask state to delay high-stakes graduation tests
State schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery (Nate Pesce, Patuxent Homestead)

Local education leaders are pressing the state to delay using tougher, new exams as graduation requirements in Maryland public schools, saying the state can't predict how well students will do on the tests.

"Teachers and students will never have seen the tests before. The reliability of the exams will not have been established," said John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

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The Maryland state school board voted this summer to replace the 10th-grade English and Algebra I High School Assessments — graduation requirements since 2009 — with new tests tied to the Common Core curriculum that are expected to be more difficult to pass. This year's approximately 125,000 ninth- and 10th-graders would be the first to have to pass the tests by the end of their senior years.

Teachers, local school boards and some superintendents say they support using the new tests — known by the acronym PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. But they want the state to put off making them a graduation requirement for several years.

"I am against having students in the current ninth grade being held accountable," said Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance, who has expressed his concerns to state Superintendent Lillian Lowery.

The state has said that if students fail the two new PARCC tests in English 10 and Algebra I, they will still have two years to retake the tests before they graduate. Those who fail can still graduate if they do an acceptable project — an option that has been in place since the High School Assessments became a graduation requirement. Few students in Maryland have failed to graduate because of the current tests.

"This year's PARCC test will not be used for accountability for this year's seniors. In the meantime, Dr. Lowery and the Maryland State Department of Education are developing some ideas for the state board to consider in the coming months," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. Lowery has been talking to superintendents in the past several weeks about their concerns, he said.

Dance believes today's seventh-graders should be the first for whom the new tests are graduation requirements. He is not alone.

The statewide association of school boards voted this month to ask for a delay.

And this weekend the Maryland State Education Association, which represents most of the state's teachers, will vote on a resolution that asks the state to remove PARCC as a graduation requirement "until the state demonstrates that the tests can be successfully administered."

Montgomery County's superintendent and its school board are opposed as well.

Those seeking a delay note that when Maryland developed the High School Assessments, they were given to students for several years before becoming a graduation requirement.

Ten states, including Maryland, are using PARCC or another test aligned with the Common Core as a graduation requirement, according to the education policy program at the foundation New America. Another eight states are going to use locally developed tests. New York state, for instance, is likely to keep its local Regents Exam, a well-respected standardized test given to all students for decades.

Maryland is "trying to be thoughtful and they are trying to adapt as information comes out," said Lindsey Tepe, program associate at New America.

The state will continue to give the end-of-year biology and American government High School Assessments that are currently in place.

The transition is complex because the passing score for new PARCC tests will not be set until months after they are first given this spring. Next summer, testing experts and state leaders will look at the results and set a passing score for each grade and subject. Results from the first PARCC tests are not expected to be released to teachers, students and the public for about a year.

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Each state is free to set its own passing scores, but for the first time, states will be able to compare results. Therefore, Maryland officials, who have claimed the No. 1 spot in the nation for education, could feel pressure not to drop the passing scores below those of other states.

In addition to the new high school exams, third- through eighth-graders will take the new PARCC tests this spring. Those test results will be used for the purpose of grading schools, but there will be no repercussions for students who fail.

The move to the new tests comes after a year of difficult implementation of the Common Core standards and related curriculum in more than 40 states. While the new standards have caused a public backlash in a few states, Maryland teachers and administrators, for the most part, have supported them, as well as the move to new tests.

"I don't think students should suffer from high-stakes requirements while school systems are still figuring out how to implement the curriculum and make tests to match that curriculum," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the ACLU of Maryland.

Momentum appears to be building for a delay, said Philip Kauffman, president of the Montgomery County school board, adding that he believes a number of other superintendents are uncomfortable with the testing timetable.

Those seeking a delay point out that the legislature has postponed the use of the PARCC student test scores to evaluate teachers until 2016-2017.

"The state recognized the tests were not going to be valid for the purposes of evaluating teachers, and the same argument stands for students," said Verdery.

Delaying the use of PARCC as a high-stakes test could cause a problem because the state requires students to pass English and math tests to graduate.

Dance believes the best alternative is to continue giving the High School Assessments in all four subjects, while giving the PARCC to only a sampling of students. He said the state could still use the sample results to set the passing score and then phase in PARCC as a graduation requirement.

Maryland's approach of only using some PARCC tests as graduation requirements this year is not the most aggressive timetable in the nation, Tepe said. While students must pass the 10th-grade English and Algebra I PARCC tests, they will not be required to pass the 11th-grade English and Algebra II test.

Instead, the 11th-grade English and Algebra II tests will be used to determine if students are ready for college and a career. The state plans to begin giving those tests in the coming years.

The state plans to set a passing score for those tests that would give students an automatic entry into college-level classes at local colleges. Currently, a large percentage of high school graduates have to take remedial classes in college to prepare them for college-level work. State officials said they will work with the colleges and universities to set those passing standards.

If students fail the 11th-grade English or the Algebra II PARCC tests, they will be required to take a remedial class during their senior year to reinforce those skills.

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Students will also have to take four years of math in high school, even if they have taken high school math classes in middle school.

"The goal here is to raise the standards and prepare students for the next step, to prepare students for what they are facing. What we have today is too many college students spending too much time in remedial courses," said Reinhard.

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