School officials worry about overwhelming students, schools with tests

The 2013-2014 school year may seem like a long way off, but state school officials are already fretting over a perfect storm of education reforms that could make today's extensive state testing regimen seem like a snap.

That's the year when students could take as many as five state-mandated tests, on top of their teachers' occasional pop quizzes and the tests given several times each year by the local school systems. While the Maryland School Assessment will be phased out, those tests will still overlap with a new battery of four new assessments to be field tested here and in 23 states.


"We are going to have students sitting in testing situations for weeks on end" if all of them are given, said interim state schools Superintendent Bernard Sadusky.

Parents and educators have raised concerns about the potential strain on children and teachers alike, and some officials have questioned whether schools have the technology to administer all of the tests online.


Sadusky and state school board members are trying to make sure that students aren't buried in tests as they navigate through some of the most significant reforms in education in years. Some have suggested dropping current testing a year early or slowing down the introduction of the new tests.

Over the next three years, the state will change what is taught, how it is tested, and how teachers and principals are evaluated. The state agreed to make most of the changes, which are supported by many educators around the state, in order to secure $250 million in federal funds doled out to states as an incentive to make the changes.

School districts next year will begin phasing in a new curriculum for reading and math based on standards agreed to by more than 40 states. For the first time, a majority of students in the country will be expected to learn the same skills in each grade from kindergarten through high school.

In addition, new tests are being created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 24 states including Maryland.

Those tests, to be given online in grades three through 11, will be compatible with the new standards and curriculum and will allow Maryland students to be compared with about 25 million other students also taking the tests around the country.

But Maryland education leaders are worried that many schools may not have the technology available to make an immediate switch to online tests, and that teachers inundated by other changes may not be able to prepare students.

Betty Weller, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, said teachers will have to juggle the old and new curriculum at the same time and prepare students to take the MSAs as well as the new tests. To make teachers even more anxious, they will begin to be judged for their performance that year under a new evaluation system that takes into account how much their students have learned — and for some, how well their students do on the tests.

"There are three different trains racing down the tracks at the same time; do they crash or do they meld?" said Weller, who added that what she sees ahead worries her.


And some parents say children shouldn't be put under such testing stress.

Alan Southworth, whose child attends Middleborough Elementary School in Baltimore County, said that although testing is necessary to assess student performance, "you simply cannot keep anyone, especially young children, under a constant strain of being tested repeatedly." He also pointed out that in the county, only half of schools are air-conditioned and temperatures can be high in September, May and June, when some of the testing takes place.

Maryland may be one of the first states to air its concerns and to question the timeline that a dozen states committed to last year when they won Race to the Top, a federal grant awarded to states that agreed to education reforms, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonpartisan group that has studied education policy decisions.

"It is one thing to build a new accountability system. It is another thing to implement it," he said, particularly while trying to put a new teacher evaluation system in place.

Jennings believes that either U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should consider waiving federal testing requirements for a year while the new assessments are being phased in, or the new assessments should be slowed down.

Laura Slover, senior vice president of Achieve, a not-for-profit group managing the creation of the PARCC tests, says some of the state board's concerns can be addressed so that students and schools are not overwhelmed with testing.


At a recent state board meeting in Maryland, some members suggested the state either drop the MSAs a year early or slow down the introduction of the new tests written by the consortium of states.

Others suggested that the state doesn't have the money to do both. "Can we delay PARCC?" asked James DeGraffenreidt, the board president.

But another problem is technology. All of the tests are intended to be given online, either on a personal computer or on a handheld device such as a tablet, but Maryland school districts say they don't have enough computers or tablets to make giving the tests in that manner feasible.

The issue is likely to be raised in other states, too. The Center for Education Reform recently published a report saying that many states don't have the technology available in the classrooms to give the tests online.

Cheryl Bost, a Baltimore County fifth-grade teacher and former union leader, said the school where she works, Prettyboy Elementary, would have difficulty giving so many tests in one year.

"We each have one or two computers in each classroom. We have one computer lab with 30 computers, when they are all working. We have 70 fifth-graders. We couldn't test a whole grade at one time," she said.


And having different classrooms take shifts at the computer lab would significantly cut into instruction and the amount of time a school's schedule is interrupted, she said.

State school board member Donna Hill Staton raised yet another concern. She worries that that not all students will do as well on tests given online, particularly students with disabilities. And others question whether young children or children who don't grow up with computers at home would be at a disadvantage with tests online.

While the test can be given on pen and pencil during a transition period, the federal funding for the testing came with the condition that it would be online, Slover said.

"We know how tricky these issues are, but we think that the opportunity is enormous," said Slover.

Teachers and policymakers give the new standards good reviews, saying they believe that a test that allows students in Maryland to be compared to peers in two dozen other states has many benefits. In addition, many teachers say they would like to see the testing done on computers because it would allow a quick turnaround for results, said school board member Kate Walsh.

The PARCC tests include four tests that can be given each year.


They begin with a diagnostic test in the beginning of the year and include a midyear test, the large assessment given in April, and a quick test given at the end of each year. Two are optional.

Slover said the field testing in 2013-2014 will not include every student in every classroom in Maryland. Just how extensive that testing will be is unclear, she said, because the plan is being developed now.

In the long term, some students might not be tested quite as much as they are today, if a school system decides to drop its local "benchmark" tests and go to the PARCC assessments, according to Slover.

Moreover, the new assessments are expected to cut down on the cost of testing, Slover said.

"Since the field testing will be distributed across the 24 consortium states, it will reduce the burden on individual states," she said.


Md. education reform timeline

2012-2013 school year

Curriculum: Writing of new state curriculum

Testing: Limited number of questions tried out in pilot field testing

Teacher evaluation system: Piloted in all 24 school systems

2013-2014 school year


Curriculum: Full implementation of state curriculum

Testing: Full field testing

Teacher evaluation system: New performance evaluation system in use statewide

2014-2015 school year

Testing: New assessments are fully implemented throughout the state

Source: Maryland State Department of Education