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Officials to cut written part of HSAs

The Baltimore Sun

State education officials have decided to go ahead with a proposal to eliminate the writing portion of the High School Assessments in order to grade the tests more quickly.

State schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick and the 24 local school superintendents have agreed that the four tests will be entirely multiple choice, beginning in May 2009, Ronald Peiffer, deputy state school superintendent for academic policy, said yesterday.

"Over the last several years most of the ... testing companies have gotten sophisticated about the multiple-choice tests," Peiffer said.

Short written answers have been part of the biology, English, American government and algebra exams. Under current policy, passing the tests is a graduation requirement, beginning with the Class of 2009, though Grasmick and the state board have discussed changing that requirement.

The board and local school superintendents have talked for months about possibly eliminating the writing part of the tests because grading those answers led to delays in getting results back to high schools. That meant students were left uncertain about whether to go to summer school and which courses to take the next fall.

The change also stems from concerns that teachers were spending too much time teaching students to write these short answers instead of concentrating on long compositions.

The multiple-choice tests will be available for students to take on computers, starting in 2009, said Leslie Wilson, assistant superintendent for accountability and assessments. That, too, should speed return of the test results, officials said.

Superintendents, parents and teachers across the state have complained for years that the grading of the important high school tests took too long. The tests are given in May and the results are generally not available until late August or September.

The grading took a long time because two people had to grade each written answer and agree on a score, a process that also is used by the College Board on the written portion of the SAT.

Eliminating the written portions of the HSAs and making them all multiple choice will mean students and schools will get the results in about three weeks, in time for students to get remedial help during the summer if they fail.

Many educators believe the written portion of the exams do not promote good writing in schools.

A task force recommended to the state school board last month that writing be taught in more depth and that students be given longer assignments that require them to make persuasive arguments. Currently, teachers in the state have been concentrating on teaching students to answer the essays that are required on the Maryland State Assessments and the HSAs, officials said.

College professors are complaining that students are coming to them with poor writing skills. "One of the things that they were saying is that obviously we can't teach writing through assessments," Wilson

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