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The problem with MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr’s testing moratorium

Percentages of students accepted to the Math and Science magnet programs at Poolesville and Blair, illustrating the academic achievement gap.
Percentages of students accepted to the Math and Science magnet programs at Poolesville and Blair, illustrating the academic achievement gap.
Graphic of data provided by MCPS.

On February 7, 2013, the superintendent of Maryland’s largest school system, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Joshua Starr took to the opinion pages of the Washington Post to reiterate his call “for a three-year moratorium on federally required standardized testing nationwide.” Ostensibly, the moratorium would “allow our school districts to focus on the important work of curriculum and assessment development, implementation and professional development.”

Not mentioned in the opinion piece was the fact that MCPS has been rolling out a new curriculum known as Curriculum 2.0 and marketed through publishing giant Pearson as Forward. The press release quotes Pearson Senior Vice President Mike Evans as stating “Now available to schools around the country, Forward provides teachers with a learning environment for helping students become agile thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators and, ultimately, lifelong learners.” With a curriculum the school district hopes to market to schools across the country, delaying federally mandated testing in schools may benefit the public school district’s commercial enterprise.

According to the district’s website, even with a moratorium of federally mandated tests, students in the school system would be subjected to a slew of tests (see here for the elementary schools testing calendar, here for the middle school testing calendar, and here for the high school testing calendar).

In a document titled Record of Success (a version released earlier in 2014 is available here and a version released subsequently is available here; the 2013 version of the document is available here; the 2012 version is available here), the school system asserts, “More than 90 percent of kindergartners have met or exceeded reading targets from 2008 to 2013, closing the achievement gap by race/ ethnicity, and socioeconomic status at this grade level.” There were three versions of the Record of Success issued in 2014, with two of those versions being released in April. A cursory investigation by this column shows that this claim of closing the achievement gap in kindergarten, at least in recent months, may be based on a memorandum issued by the district on October 1, 2013.

The memorandum reports performance by primary grade students on a test developed and administered by the district. Known as the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Assessment Program in Primary Reading (AP-PR), a student is assumed to have met the AP-PR benchmark if they read at or above the 50th National Curve Equivalent on the TerraNova (TN/2) test. In 2010, this column confirmed with the school system that the “The TN2 norm is about 10 years old.” TN/2 norms were published 1996, 2000, and 2005, and MCPS apparently chose to use the 2000 norms and scores the tests “locally.”

In other words, if MCPS continues to use the AP-PR test, in which the passing benchmark was based on normative data that was out-of-date, the validity of the gap closing claim may be called into question.

Furthermore, the data in the memorandum, even if valid, calls into question the claim of the gap being closed. For example, a table labeled A1 contains data for the percentages of kindergartners who met or exceeded end-of-the year reading benchmarks (Text Level 4). According to the table, 89% of blacks or African Americans met or exceeded the kindergarten benchmark, while 95.6% of Asians and 95.9% of whites achieved the same benchmarks. Only, 82.8% of Hispanics met the same benchmark. When it came to Text Level 6, only 71.9% of blacks and 55.4% of Hispanics met the benchmarks. In contrast, 87% of Asians and 85.5% of whites attained proficiency at this level. The data does not seem to support the claim that MCPS closed the achievement gap by race/ ethnicity.

According to the memorandum, the gap not only persists but seems to grow as student progress to grade two.

While Starr may favor a testing moratorium, it is his district that calls out for independent verification of student accomplishment.

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