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School board: more technology needed for testing

School board members Rita Weaver (l) and Chairman Karin Bailey at a recent meeting. Photo by Dick Myers.

Leonardtown, MD -- The St. Mary’s County Board of Education is concerned about the technology requirements for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. Maryland is only one of seven states to use the test to measure federally-mandated requirements.

The concerns of the school board were registered in a Nov. 24 letter to Interim State School Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith. The comments were in response to a report issued by the Maryland State Department of Education that was mandated by the state legislature. That massive report was issued in August. It details the local-, state- and federally-mandated assessments in Maryland.

The state's 24 school systems are required to comment on the report. Generally the St. Mary’s school board agrees that the report accurately reflects what is being done in the state. The report could be used by the legislature to address the concern that students are being over-tested.

The letter unanimously approved by the board and signed by Chairman Karin Bailey states, “Most of the locally mandated tests are built into the normal course work and are designed to evaluate skills and master concepts.”

The letter goes on to say. , “The Board feels that the amount and time of the locally mandated tests are necessary in order to ensure that our students are receiving instruction that will allow them to master skills and concepts.”

But then the letter goes on to question one conclusion of the report – that state school systems have adequate technology (at one computer for every five students) to administer the tests. The school board feels that is a challenge for them. School Superintendent Scott Smith said at the board's regular Nov. 24 meeting, “Anyone who said that technology wasn’t a challenge with PARCC last year just wasn’t listening.”

Smith said meeting the 5 to 1 ratio will be a financial challenge in St. Mary’s. And a goal of every child having a computer is an even greater stretch. “Every child with a computer is an unbelievably expensive investment,” he said.

Regarding that assessment by the state board on technical requirements, school. Board member Cathy Allen said, “That was a stretch for us.”

During a report on the PARCC testing two weeks ago, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeff Maher presented examples of some of the questions asked on last year’s tests. One had students dissect minority and majority opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. That required students to click and drag quotes from the justices into their answers. Test monitors were not able to assist students having technical trouble. That raised concern from several school board members about all students having the tools and skills to do that.

School board member Rita Weaver said the difficulties extend beyond the individual students to the entire school in which the tests are being administered. She said during testing for one grade all grades had to suspend use of computers because lack of bandwidth and a dearth of computers.

The letter added Weaver’s comments to address that concern: “This expected ratio (5-1) combined with the additional internet bandwidth required to administer the tests impacted instruction within the schools during the testing time frame. The time frame for PARCC assessments also impacted students’ daily schedules and other instructional time due to the need to utilize media and computer center labs for testing. This was particularly felt at the elementary school level for those grades not involved in PARCC testing as resources were diverted away from their traditional learning tools.”

New school board member Daniel Carney, attending his first meeting, asked Smith if the school board’s recently approved computer initiative would help the situation.

Smith said it would for elementary schools for the tests to be held next spring. The number of PARCC tests was reduced from three to two a year for this school year.
Last year’s testing was intended to be “No-fault” for the students but that will not be the case this school year. Parents have been receiving the tests results for the students who took the test last year based on a five-level scale with “exceeding expectations” the highest and needing improvement the lower levels.

After all of the school systems respond to the report and it is vetted through the Maryland General Assembly, each school system will then have another crack at responding. It will be at that time  that more specific proposals for change will be brought forth.

Allen for one is fearful that there will be a push-back in the legislature on the testing and that a lot of the work being done will require some type of a reboot.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com

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