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Testing questions left to local school boards

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Too many hours of school tests? Local boards will decide.

The push for less testing in Maryland public schools is going local.

Parents and teachers who want children to spend more time on lessons and less on taking tests will have to make their case to their local school boards, a state commission on testing says.

The commission, assigned by the General Assembly to study the issue, has recommended the formation of local school district committees that would report to the public yearly on the number of hours of testing being required of students. The committees could suggest eliminating redundant or unnecessary exams.

"There are a lot of tests that are required by the school district," said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and member of the commission. "We have to know whether they are doing what they should do or are just taking time out of the instruction."

Local school boards have until Sept. 1 to tell the Maryland State Department of Education whether they plan to set up the committees.

Across the state and the nation, parents, teachers and legislators have criticized the amount of testing being done by schools, saying that it takes away time from teaching. A state survey that requires school districts to report the number of hours of testing in each grade shows that most testing is mandated locally rather than by the federal or state government.

Several commission members said that while they began their study hoping to recommend that specific tests be eliminated, the multitude of tests made it difficult to know what is best for each school system. The state requires the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC exams, for grades three through eight in reading and math, and it requires four high school tests. Local school systems decide whether to give additional tests.

If local school leaders do not look into cutting back on tests, the legislature is more likely to intervene, commission members said. The Assembly and the commission have considered limiting the number of hours of testing to 2 percent of the total yearly classroom hours. A bill proposing such a cap gained some support in this year's session but did not pass.

"I think most of the impact is felt at the local level, and it is best dealt with on the local level," said Del. Shelly L. Hettleman, a Democrat representing Baltimore County and a commission member. "If local boards ignore it, then I think the General Assembly would take a more direct approach potentially."

Most school boards have not decided whether they will create separate boards to look at reducing testing, said John R. Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "Local boards get it and are certainly very cognizant of the concerns that teachers are raising and that parents are raising," he said.

The anti-testing movement nationally, Woolums said, "is a function of teachers and teachers unions having a lot of anxiety about the assessments used to evaluate their pay and their performance." Maryland, however, has been reluctant to use standardized test scores as the main way of evaluating teacher performance.

Teachers would be supportive of the local testing committees if they are set up, said Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, a union that represents more than 70,000 educators and workers in public schools.

In a report to the General Assembly, the testing commission recommends that the state drop one test and halt the development of a second. The commission wants the state to tell schools not to give the High School Assessment in biology until a reliable science test is developed to replace it. The test is given after students take a biology class in high school, and passing it is a state requirement for graduation.

The commission suggested that the state halt a new middle school social studies test that is now being written. Concerned that classroom teachers are spending too much time as proctors for tests, the commission recommends that the multistate consortium for PARCC testing change its rules to allow teachers aides or others to do it.

The commission also wants the PARRC test to be broken up into parts that do not exceed the length of a regular class so that school schedules are not disrupted. Those two changes alone, Hettleman said, "would go a long way toward not disrupting the class schedule."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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