Amid an outpouring of frustration about the amount of public school testing, education leaders in Maryland and 10 other states decided this week to cut back on the reading and math tests introduced only three months ago.
The testing won't be completed until early June, but the outcry was strong enough to force action on next year's test by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states that developed the test to align with the Common Core standards.
"Next year's PARCC tests will take less time away from lessons and cause less disruption to school schedules," said Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery.
This spring, about a half-million Maryland students in grades three through eight are taking tests in both math and English in two sittings, in March and May. Next year, they will take the tests during one stretch toward the end of the school year. The timing will differ by school districts, but they must be given after students have completed 162 days of instruction or about 75 percent of the school year.
The tests will be 90 minutes shorter for those in elementary and middle school. High school students still will be required to take a 10th-grade English and an Algebra I PARCC test but the testing period will be reduced from 11.1 hours to 9.7 hours.
Cecil County Superintendent D'Ette W. Devine said the changes will help alleviate the feeling in schools that testing was taking up a lot of time between March and June. Devine argued for the change at a consortium meeting early this month at which she represented superintendents across Maryland.
School leaders, she said, support the PARCC test, but the logistics were unmanageable. It was "too long," she said, and there was "too much of it. That came out loud and clear."
Devine said teachers welcomed the changes for next year.
"I think this is a step forward," said Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance. "We really want to balance the amount of time kids spend on instruction and the amount of time kids spend on assessment."
Five million students in the consortium of states — from Colorado to Massachusetts — are taking the PARCC. The reaction in Maryland, where standardized testing has been in place for more than 20 years, was less drastic than in some states, but teachers and parents still called for changes.
The Maryland legislature set up a task force this year to collect data on the hours of testing and to look at ways to reduce that time. A group of Baltimore charter school teachers will meet next week to begin a statewide campaign to dump PARCC.
A Baltimore Sun analysis of testing at each grade level this school year in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties shows that while the state and federal governments require many hours of testing — at least 13 hours for each child in third through eighth grade — some school systems layer on dozens of hours of their own. Students in grades five and eight, the years before the transition to middle and high school, endure the most hours of testing.
The PARCC tests are only part of the testing load. Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most of the state's teachers, said local school systems have to look for ways to reduce the amount of testing they require.
"This is a significant first step, but we think there is more work that needs to be done," she said. "The greatest concern is the amount of instructional time lost."
Parents will see it as a "good step overall," said Ray Leone, president of the Maryland PTA, but they remain concerned about the total number of hours of testing, not just those mandated by the state.
Maryland school officials said the changes to PARCC were made in response to feedback from parents, students and educators during the first year of testing and a careful review of test design.
Many schools did not have enough computers for the testing. About 85 percent of students took the test on computers, but most school districts do not have a computer for each child so the testing was spread out over weeks.
The testing monopolized computers and sometimes the entire media center. Devine said an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher complained that she could not do important assignments with her students because the computers were being used for tests.
Teachers also complained that there was too little time between the end of the first testing in March and the beginning of the second session in late May and June.
Although many greeted the changes with enthusiasm, some said they did not go far enough.
"We have created a culture of teaching to the test. That is not authentic education," said Robert Dietzen, a fourth- and fifth-grade math and science teacher at City Neighbors Hamilton, a Baltimore charter school where teachers are hoping to form a coalition of teachers from across Maryland who oppose aspects of the test.
Dietzen said he found some of the questions convoluted and intentionally tricky. Students who were adequately prepared ended up getting answers wrong because they did not understand the questions, he said.
The changes to PARCC are "yet another minor response to the growing public protest around the time and energy" of testing, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "PARCC in particular ... was a marathon. It was one of the reasons that the enough-is-enough movement is growing across the nation."
Florida dropped the PARCC test, Colorado's governor recently signed legislation to reduce testing and New Jersey's legislature has taken up the issue, he said.
The Maryland State Board of Education is expected to vote next month on whether high school students will be required to take other PARCC tests, including ninth- and 11th-grade English and Algebra II.