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Maryland lawmakers eye cutting standardized test requirements

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For students like Clarksburg High School senior Angie Nseliema, standardized tests mean a disruption of the normal school routine.

On the first day of state-mandated exams, she missed all her classes for the first half of the day and had substitute teachers the rest of the day.

"And then for those next two weeks I think it was on average three or four teachers were missing,” she said during a panel hosted last month by the Maryland State Education Association. “During that time we were doing final exam stuff so it was like you couldn't really prepare for final exams because your teacher wasn't in class."

When state lawmakers return to Annapolis this week, the teachers union hopes to convince lawmakers to pass a bill limiting standardized testing to just 2 percent of total classroom time.  

"That's about 21 and a half hours of testing,” said the union’s legislative director, Sean Johnson. “Based on federal mandated testing now, there's about eight to nine and a half hours of federal mandated testing, and then there would be the additional state and local testing that is important to occur but not to the level of over-testing that we see now.”

In some districts, students spend more than 30 hours taking locally required standardized tests, according to state data. Fifth graders in Dorchester County will spend more than 50 hours taking required tests this school year.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the real problem with the time the tests consume is that they disrupt the school day.

“If the way the process works is you wind up having to have a gym teacher proctor all of the assessments in the elementary school, that means potentially for every kid for several grades, they don't have P.E. for five or six weeks,” he said.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last month, loosened some of the rules governing how schools across the country use standardized tests. As a result, Madaleno said he expects to see a number of testing-related measures in Annapolis in the coming weeks.

“I think we're going to be looking at a variety of things,” he said. “How much time is spent on testing, who has to administer the test, how many tests are provided every year, so and can we innovate?"

A handful of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have already started pitching ideas.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican from Harford and Baltimore counties, is considering a measure eliminating a test given to kindergartners. The bill failed last year because officials worried that it didn’t meet the federal requirements at the time. But now that the requirements have changed, Jennings said he may try again.

And Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat from Baltimore and Howard counties, said he worked with the MSEA to draft three bills related to testing. One caps the number of hours of testing to 2 percent of instruction. Another requires schools to notify parents when testing is taking place, and the third limits how much test results can factor into teacher evaluations.

A state commission studying the testing issue is expected to release policy recommendations by July.

Commission Chairman Christopher Berry, the principal at James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County, said the commission may recommend cutting back on time spent taking tests. But Berry warns against eliminating standardized tests entirely.

"There's a reason why a lot of assessments came into being in the first place,” he said ahead of the group’s next meeting on Jan. 11. “I think the purpose of the commission, or one of them is to sort out, OK, what are we looking at now? What opportunities do we have with the new federal law?”