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Standardized testing in Maryland schools can wait | COMMENTARY

Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, stops to talk with Liberty seniors Amanda Cyran, left, and Emma Bauer as they work in the Certified Nursing Assistant lab during her visit to the Carroll County Career and Tech Center in Westminster Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.
Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, stops to talk with Liberty seniors Amanda Cyran, left, and Emma Bauer as they work in the Certified Nursing Assistant lab during her visit to the Carroll County Career and Tech Center in Westminster Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. (Dylan Slagle)

Maryland students were slated to take new standardized tests last year — before COVID hit. The tests replace previous assessments, known as PARCC, that were criticized as taking up too much classroom time and as too difficult for students to pass. But, like many other things, the pandemic also disrupted plans for the rollout of the new Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program. With students thrown into the precarious world of virtual learning, the state school system correctly decided that it was no longer the best time to implement new testing. There were other basics to worry about, such as if children had internet to log onto classes.

But now Maryland State School Superintendent Karen Salmon, the state school board and the federal education department think students are ready to take at least some of the tests. The school board at the recommendation of Ms. Salmon voted Tuesday that all public schools give the new tests in reading and math, but not science or social studies, in grades three through eight and in high school this spring. It seems they may have been given little choice given that the federal education department said this week that states would have to give the tests in those subjects, but encouraged them to ask for waivers to shorten the tests, delay them or make other accommodations.

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What is the rush? The learning environment is not back to normal by any means. Sure, local school systems are starting to send students back to the classroom, but in a hybrid learning model. Most students will still be attending class from home at least part of the week. And many parents aren’t ready to send their kids back at all to a school building they don’t think is safe from COVID transmission.

There are plenty of statistics and anecdotal evidence that not all students are adjusting to and learning well via computer — and that is regardless of race or class. Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises in announcing in January that she would offer more in-school learning said that more than half of the students in third grade through 12th grade have failed at least one course this school year. Then there are all the students who haven’t shown up for school, whether it be because they don’t have reliable internet or a good support system at home. Teachers need to focus on getting students back on learning track, not preparing for a standardized test. How do we expect for students to do well on such a test when their learning environments have been turned upside down for a year? It is setting kids and schools up for failure.

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Ms. Salmon said the testing could be used to gauge how students have learned during the pandemic and help schools see who needs extra help going forward and determine how far students have fallen behind. But there are other ways to determine that. Maryland State Education Association president Cheryl Bost told The Sun’s Liz Bowie that she agrees that teachers need to assess where students are academically, but that it could be done “more quickly and easily with assessments that are already given by nearly every school system.”

Standardized tests are typically used to not only assess how students are performing academically, but teachers, schools and school systems as well. Maryland schools won’t be dinged because of the results this year, which is one good thing to come out of the decision. But if that is the case, why even give the tests? Let teachers focus on transitioning kids back into the classroom, not just academically but socially as well. Teachers have a hard enough time getting students back into classroom mode after a week of spring break, let alone months of virtual learning. Teachers will be stressed out, worrying about following COVID guidelines and balancing online learning and classroom time. And now they have to add administering the standardized tests, both virtually and in-person. What is the point?

These kids have lost enough teaching time during the pandemic, as it is. They can’t afford to lose more to tests that have no clear value in this environment. We are not saying get rid of the tests forever. If everything goes well, enough people will be vaccinated by next school year so that there is a full return to in-person learning. Then standardized testing can become a priority again.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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