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Maryland is About to Make a BIG Mistake

April 29, 2016

In the mid-1990s I was Superintendent of Schools in Maryland and served as the Superintendent’s Association representative on the High School Assessment Task Force. During that time period the testing mania that gripped our nation once NCLB was launched was just beginning. Maryland had State Assessments were administered to students in grades 3 through 8 and the results were included on Report Cards for each school. The Report Card data we collected on the tests, graduation rates, attendance, and other information was disaggregated by race, gender, special education, and free and reduced lunch counts. The intention of the Grade 3 to Grade 8 tests was largely diagnostic. It was designed to help schools identify groups of students who were not sufficiently prepared in reading and mathematics and not intended to be used as a means of measuring individual student performance. The idea behind the test was to track the progress of schools as they worked to close performance gaps among various groups of students and to help districts identify which approaches were working best to accomplish that end.

The State Superintendent at the time, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, promised the State Board her staff would work with constituent groups to develop a high school assessment, which led to the creation of the High School Assessment Task Force. We never did finish the task in the three years I served on the group because developing a high school assessment that would measure college or career readiness and did not leave thousands of students in the lurch was a far more complex task than our work team could accomplish, especially if the intention of the test was to determine if a student would graduate or not.  To Dr. Grasmick’s credit– and the State Board’s credit as well– the purchase of an off-the-shelf test was quickly rejected. Why? Because the State Department’s test designers and Task Force members all realized that any norm-refereced assessment would necessarily yield a bell-curve that would result in 50% of the students scoring “below average”. That meant that our committee needed to develop a criterion referenced test to determine if a student was “ready to work or ready to go to college or both”… When we looked at the skills sought by employers, we ultimately concluded we needed to develop a means of measuring soft skills that defied a pencil and paper assessment.

Two decades later this all seems to have been forgotten… and nothing has changed except the State Board’s thinking. According to an article by Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun the Maryland State Board is now planning to use the PARCC assessment as a graduation examination to ensure that its students all get a rigorous and solid background. And what happens to those students who will invariably fall into the bottom half?

Thousands of students, education officials say, will be taking the tests multiple times to try to pass, and many will likely use a loophole that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge by doing a project that is approved by their teacher and other administrators.

With such a large percentage of students failing the exams, teachers will have many more students doing projects who they must work with individually.

This approach is completely wrongheaded. Teachers will spend the freshman and sophomore years preparing students to pass a test knowing full well that 50% or more are likely to “fail” and will then spend the last two years developing individualized projects for students.

If Maryland wanted to get their program right, they should look to the north where Vermont is approaching high school with a polar opposite approach. Students entering 7th grade in Vermont public schools must develop a Personalized Learning Plan that will help them determine what they expect to learn and do while they are in school and after they graduate, a plan that is reviewed annually and used as the basis for course selection and/or external work or projects that can be used to demonstrate they have mastered the skills expected of high school graduates. And based on my experience working with several school districts in the state, teachers are not viewing working individually with students as something they must do: it is something they re eagerly embracing. I’ve led districts in both states and I do not buy the notion that the Vermont approach cannot work in larger states. Vermont’s approach to individualized plans beginning is 7th grade certainly won’t cost mare than repeatedly giving tests to every child and then individualizing the program. Al that’s needed is a change in thinking… but moving away from seat time, the accumulation of credits, and the passing of standardized tests challenges our factory mentality that sorts and selects students into “winners” and “losers”.


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