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Putting testing to the test

How many hours should a student spend each year taking standardized tests? That might be a tougher question than any posed on the most challenging of those exams. The likely best answer is that students should spend as much time on tests as necessary for them to learn and mark progress in schools — no more, no less.

Yet, lawmakers in Annapolis are plunging into this difficult area with a level of certainty that is breathtaking to behold. This week, the House of Delegates approved legislation that would limit the number of hours students can spend on standardized testing to 2 percent of the school year — or about 21.6 to 23.4 hours annually — based on Maryland's 180-day calendar (the roughly two-hour difference due to the slightly longer high school day).

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That the measure in question passed unanimously, 138-0, demonstrates at least two things. First, it shows the clout of the Maryland State Education Association, the state's largest educators union, and the right-wing legislators who have formed an odd bedfellows coalition with teachers against standardized testing generally. And second, it shows that lawmakers are perfectly willing to reach into the classroom to set a sweeping policy for school systems with a minimal understanding of what's involved and what the consequences might be.

But here's the real kicker: Last year, the General Assembly created a commission to study the issue of standardized testing in public schools, surveying local school systems grade level by grade level and reviewing the various testing mandates. That report isn't due until June. Apparently, no one in the House of Delegates wants to wait for the facts. That misstep alone deserves a failing grade — or at least amounts to an incomplete.

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It's entirely possible 20 or so hours per year is more than sufficient time to test students, but maybe it's not. Perhaps there are certain circumstances — when students are being evaluated for entry into gifted and talented programs or when kindergarten students are receiving one-on-one intake assessments to name just two examples — when this arbitrary standard may prove a problem. Why take such a risk?

Here's the real issue. A lot of parents (and teachers) are unhappy with one specific test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which has only recently been implemented in Maryland. The transition to PARCC has been challenging, and, as we've noted on these pages before, it isn't necessarily giving an accurate picture of whether students are meeting state education goals — at least not yet.

But limiting standardized testing won't eliminate PARCC, which, at worst, takes less than 10 hours to administer. It just seems longer because schools administer the tests over a two-week period — as scheduling and computer access allows. The impetus to switch to PARCC was to raise student achieve in Maryland, a goal as important today as ever. As a recent study by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute concluded, PARCC is a more rigorous and accurate measure of student performance than tests used in the past.

All of which points to the legislation pending in Annapolis as premature and heavyhanded. And it isn't the only testing-related bill making its way through the General Assembly. Lawmakers would also like to reduce the number of kindergartners tested for school readiness and dictate to school boards how and when they inform parents about upcoming standardized testing. Keeping families informed isn't a bad policy (one trusts schools are already doing this on a regular basis), but dictating the terms of that practice from Annapolis seems unnecessary and cultivates the kind of bureaucratic approach that hamstrings educators. (Wait, did we explain in the email the "validity, reliability, objectivity and cost" of the tests in our draft email to parents? No? Better try again, fellow school board members, or we'll be violating the law.)

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Look, we get it. Teachers and parents aren't enjoying the transition to PARCC and question the need for so much time in testing. But legislators need to refrain from their predictable desire to please these powerful constituencies and give school systems and the Maryland State Department of Education a chance to adapt. There is no deadline here. When in doubt, it's generally best to leave education in the hands of educators, at least until all involved are better informed.

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