Southern MD newspapers cover testing controversy
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- Subject: Southern MD newspapers cover testing controversy
- From: "Sue Allison" <email@example.com>
- Date: Tue, 23 Sep 2003 14:13:42 -0400
The following article appeared in three Southern Maryland sister newspapers last Friday: The St. Marys County Enterprise, the Charles County MD Independent, and the Calvert County Recorder. Enjoy!
Sue Allison, Coordinator, Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing www.geocities.com/stophsa
SCHOOL ASSESSMENTS GETTING PUT TO THE TEST
Debate rages over how much is enough
Calvert Recorder 9/19/03 Alan Brody
American schools are deeply immersed in a new era of accountability. Federal and state governments want assurances that money is being properly spent. School systems and individual schools yearn to see where they stack up against each other, while the ultimate burden to achieve is placed on teachers and students inside the classroom.
Results of the state's new testing regimen - the Maryland School Assessments - were recently disclosed to mixed reviews and the state board of education is moving toward requiring passage of a set of high school assessments in order to graduate.
Throw in the college entrance exams and the regular battery of classroom testing and students are facing an almost never-ending supply of tests from third grade through high school graduation, said Pat Dennis, one of two mothers who make up the Education Doctors, a school reform and research analysis group. "Its overkill," said the Chesapeake Beach resident. "Why does the state feel the need to second-guess the teachers? I trust the teachers' judgment over anyone from the state who isn't in my child's classroom."
This push toward more standardized testing and accountability, set in motion largely due to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, has left school administrators scrambling to implement the assessments, teachers rushing through lesson plans to cover test material and students pressured to perform on the high-stakes exams.
Unlike the MSA's, the high school assessments are not mandated by No Child Left Behind; it is a state program. Nevertheless, the test has been thrust into the spotlight because of its controversial link as a potential graduation requirement, which could take effect for entering high school freshmen in 2005.
Supporters contend that students must exhibit a sufficient level of proficiency in high school before graduation, and this is one way to help identify students in need of remediation. The influx of standardized tests is a major concern for testing critics such as Sue Allison, founder of Calvert County-based Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing. She said it could place a harmful stigma on struggling students that could lead to a higher dropout rate and puts unnecessary stress on those who might otherwise perform well. "The first person to get punished is the student," she said. "Whatever happened to the learning for the sake of learning? It's all about competition, and I don't think that can foster a love of learning."
The move to tie testing with graduation hit a snag last month when state board of education members were told half of students statewide would have failed if the requirement had been in place this year. That figure raised eyebrows from teachers who will be charged with preparing students for the high-stakes assessments. "That tells me the test is flawed, not the student," said Tammy Tomasello, a ninth-grade teacher at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf. The state board opted to delay consideration of the high school assessment issue until its December meeting.
Phase one of the HSAs will be administered primarily at the conclusion of the ninth-grade curriculum in English, algebra, government, and biology. Since Charles County students take biology in 10th grade, those tests would be slightly fractured. All students completing those courses were required to take the assessments last year, but diplomas were not withheld, said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
DRAWING THE LINE
How much testing is too much? When does it stop being a measure of accountability and start becoming too much of a cumbersome affliction?
Establishing a minimum passing score on the HSAs required for graduation might be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, said Blaine Adams, assistant director of accountability and testing for Calvert County's public schools. "My view is that there is some duplication in testing and in some ways too much testing that detracts from actual instruction and delivery of instruction," he said. Some teachers said that having to prepare freshmen for the assessments might detract from traditional instructional efforts and place more anxiety on all parties involved. "It's a lot of tests to give over the course of a year, said Jodie Umbarger, a ninth-grade government teacher at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head. "It stresses students out, it stresses us out, and it's a lot of information to cram into a short period of time."
Yet, school officials contend that the assessments are designed around the curriculum, not vice versa. "We have an obligation to teach kids what is on the assessments," said John Cox, Charles County's assistant superintendent of instruction. "That doesn't take every minute of every day," Allison, the anti-testing advocate and parent of two elementary school students, said there's much more to a high school education that a three hour test - the length of each high school subject assessment - can determine. It also devalues the role of teachers by adding another assessment to the mix, Allison said. "For somebody up in Baltimore to say that my kid is not going to get his or her diploma. is an invasion of local control and the relationship between student, teacher and parent," she said.
Teachers agree that the HSAs should not be the sole factor in gauging academic achievement. "It doesn't necessarily prove or disprove what they have learned in the classroom," said Michelle Fischer, a ninth-grade English teacher at Stone. "There are so many factors that go into it." Allison said she also worries that some school subjects might be marginalized with the increased emphasis on standardized testing, such as "research projects, science labs and things kids need for college. "The more school accountability is based on standardized test scores, the more school curriculum will be a worksheet," she said.
IN ONE TEST, OUT THE OTHER
While they debate the merit of the HAS graduation requirement, state board members simultaneously voted to eliminate the two-decade-old Maryland Functional Tests next year, which focused on more basic skills in reading, writing and math. That would still leave a multitude of standardized tests on the table, but they are a necessary tradeoff in return for accountability, Cox said. "If you're going to have accountability, you need to have assessments," he said. "You can't go on feel-good things. You have to use data and facts. The accountability is good because it should result in victories for our kids." But there also has to be a balance, Cox added. "You don't want the assessment to become the only thing you're doing. Good teaching is going to get us where we want to go," he said. "The balance has to be with the students' interests in mind and how much they can deal with."
That's the mindset which Allison, whose group is affiliated with the National Center for Fair and Open Testing like to hear from school officials. "The problem I have with the aura of accountability today is that is all comes down to standardized testing," she said. "I don't think [state officials] are paying attention to what parents want from schools. Parents are not going to say, 'We want standardized test scores.' We want our kids to be excited about what they are learning." That's the challenge for teachers - prepare the students for the inevitable exams, while keeping them engaged and motivated. "I do think you have to test the knowledge [students] learn in class, but I don't think giving a 14-year-old a three-hour test is the best thing to do," Umbarger said. "These kids are learning some pretty heavy concepts, and I don't know if these tests measure what they need to know." Umbarger said.
ACTION IN ANNAPOLIS?
The high school assessments debated entered the political arena earlier this year when the Maryland General Assembly was in session. Del. George W. Owings (D-Calvert) sponsored a bill late in the session that would have prohibited the state board of education from "using passage of a single examination or assessment or a series of examinations or assessments as a requirement for graduation from a public high school."
Academic achievement should be measured cumulatively throughout the school year, especially with a diploma riding on the performance of a single test, Owings said. "Do you judge a restaurant on a single meal?" questioned the four-term legislator. "When does one particular exam or assessment indicate that one has gained certain knowledge or not gained certain knowledge?"
Although last year's bill was squashed in the House Ways and Means Committee by a 3-to-1 ratio, Owings said he stands behind the bill and will sponsor it in a similar form again in the 2004 session. "This is an issue that.will again garner some interest and some additional support," he said. Owings and other opponents of standardized testing won't get help from at least one high-ranking school board member who hails from Charles County.
C.J. Caniglia, who serves as the student member on the state board of education, and he supports the eventual implementation of the tests as a graduation requirement. 'I think it gives the diploma that students are earning more credibility," said the Stone junior. "Any test.is going to show that students are actually learning the coursework they were taking. Without a test, your diploma might seem like a certificate of attendance to colleges, whereas if you have a high-stakes test attached to your diploma, it increases your value and [college admissions officials] are going to look at Maryland students more seriously." Caniglia quelled the notion of "teaching to the test" by noting that Maryland's content standards are closely aligned to the assessments' design. "If teachers are teaching the content, they are 'teaching to the test,'" he said.
Several legislative bodies, however, have thrown themselves behind efforts to abolish mandatory test scores for graduating. One is the Calvert County Board of Education that, in a March 12 letter to Marilyn Maultsby, former president of the Maryland State Board of Education, appealed the state to reconsider using assessments as "a sole determinant for diploma. "While we favor setting rigorous academic standards for students and making districts and students accountable by administering statewide high school assessments, we cannot agree that important decisions about a child's future and a high school diploma should rest solely on a single-content test," the letter reads.
Like Allison, the Calvert board of education expressed concern that too much emphasis would be placed on the test and less on a student's year round achievement. "Maryland's standards-based system has and can continue to raise student achievement without the added graduation requirement," the letter continues. "We feel strongly.that when the test results are used as a single measure of attainment, they fall short of providing a complete picture of the student's achievement. We appeal to you as fellow board members to view these assessments in the broader context of their value and not reduce them to a hurdle for graduation."
The Frederick County Board of Education similarly has thrown its support behind Owings' bill, citing the financial impact of student remediation and a desire for local determination of graduation requirements.
MARYLAND'S NOT ALONE
More than 20 states will have mandatory exit exams of varying designs in place by 2008, according to an August report by the Center on Education Policy. Massachusetts, where state officials this year withheld diplomas of 4,800 failing students for the first time, is one of the hottest battlegrounds for the assessment fight and Maryland might not be far behind.
Tension ran high in Massachusetts after hundred of students walked out on the tests. School board vowed to ignore the testing requirement, while state officials threaten punitive action against local school systems who did not recognize the exit exam.
CHALLENGED LIE AHEAD
Several challenged lie ahead for states who require high school assessments, according to the report, such as possible legal battles, providing teachers and students adequate tools for test preparation, implementing remediation programs for failing students and linking exit exams with higher education institutions.
And since the Maryland High School Assessments are not part of the No Child Left Behind testing requirement - that's the Maryland School Assessment - questions remain on how the state will implement two huge exams. Maryland is only one of seven states whose high school assessment is not linked with the No Child Left Behind assessment, the report said. That's because planning for the high school assessment began well before No Child Left Behind ever became an education catch phrase, said Reinhard, the state department of education spokesman.
Allison has her own concern about the effects of make-or-break testing on Maryland's educational system: Will cut scores be lowered to allow more students to pass? Will curriculum at higher-performing schools be "dumbed-down" to align with content standards? Will the high school dropout rate increase if struggling students repeatedly fail? Will the state pay for remediation or will be another unfunded mandate?
All these questions remain in limbo and as the state board of education draws closer to making a final decision, Dennis and Allison said they will continue to lobby for the elimination of the high school assessment. While both acknowledge their fight is an uphill battle, support has increased in recent months. "The tests, in and of themselves, are not the answer," said Adams, assistant director of accountability and testing from Calvert. "It's just one of several ways to view student achievement and student performance in an academic setting. The more ways that you can look at a student's achievement, the better look you're getting at the holistic view of the student's performance.
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