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Maryland schools chief recommends statewide testing resume this spring, with reduced exams

Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon is recommending all public schools give the new statewide test in reading and math for the first time this spring, but also proposed scaling back the total amount of testing.

Salmon will ask for the state school board’s approval to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and high school, according to documents posted on the state education department website. Those exams could take more than seven hours, but Salmon is proposing the state not give tests in science and other subjects.

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The new Maryland test, known as the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program, was going to be introduced last spring when the coronavirus pandemic placed those plans on hold. MCAP is replacing the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which was last given in 2019.

The documents do not say whether students learning from home will be able to take the tests unsupervised, or whether the state would require students to come to school buildings. Cheating is a possibility: young students at home could get help from their parents and older students could research the answers.

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The documents do not address other issues, as well, including whether students without internet access would be exempt from testing.

The state school board is meeting Tuesday to discuss — and possibly vote on — Salmon’s recommendations.

With many students forced to learn online for much of the last year, some teachers say testing is not the best use of limited in-person class time.

“In the middle of a global pandemic, with families in Baltimore City struggling to meet their basic needs, asking students and educators to spend the precious time they do have together on statewide standardized tests is not just unnecessary but harmful,” said Corey Gaber, a Baltimore Teachers Union officer.

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However, some advocates believe that tests — if the consequences of results are limited — could be useful to parents and students to help them advocate for tutoring or summer school.

“I am of the belief that the more information we have the better. So if there is any way to collect assessment data, we should do it,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. “We will have to take [the results] with a large grain of salt, but that is OK. We can interpret.”

The tests could help parents who want to know how far behind their children have fallen during the pandemic. Without data on what students have learned and what they haven’t, schools will not be able to “understand the scope of the investments that need to be made,” Lake said.

Maryland State Education Association president Cheryl Bost agrees that teachers need to determine what students haven’t been able to learn at home, but she said that information can be gathered much more quickly and easily with assessments that are already given by nearly every school systems.

“We believe if students are going back to hybrid and in-person [classes] the most important thing for them is to build back relationships and address their social and emotional needs and not jump into any sort of testing,” Bost said.

Bost said teachers and students are unfamiliar with the new test, and so giving it would not provide reliable data that could be compared to prior years.

Whether to administer tests at all this year is a question being debated nationally. Federal law requires testing students annually in some subjects, but states could ask for a waiver. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education said it would require states to go ahead with the tests, although states should consider moving testing to the summer or the fall, giving the tests remotely and shortening the length of the testing.

So far, fewer than half of states have said they will be going ahead with testing and some have already asked for waivers according to a survey, said Lake.

Salmon declined to be interviewed or allow any department staff to be interviewed on the testing issue. She has declined all Baltimore Sun interview requests about education matters for the past year. On Monday, the department referred a reporter to the power point presentation on its website as a response to questions posed a week ago.

For nearly two decades, the state has required school systems across the state to give annual tests to determine where students stood. Test results are used to grade schools in their performance, and in some cases, teachers.

“Rather than interrupting what little routine we have been able to create amidst a world in crisis, the time spent on these exams would be better used covering the remaining lessons that create real learning gains,” said Gaber.

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