Recent emphasis on standardized and high-stakes testing has some parents in the Howard County school district concerned that teachers are teaching too much "to the test" and stifling creativity in the classroom.
That was one of the issues that PTSA presidents and members of the Citizens Advisory Committee discussed with members of the Board of Education and district administrators last week at a meeting of the three groups.
They typically meet twice a year to discuss issues and concerns, and to share information.
In addition to concerns about testing, residents and parents brought up topics such as class sizes, redistricting and block scheduling.
Robin Procida, PTA vice president at Harper's Choice Middle School, said parents at her school feel as though "kids are being tested to death," because of heavy classroom preparation for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams, administered by the state every spring.
Procida told board members many parents think that when teachers use too much instruction time to prepare for state and other tests such as the high school assessments, not enough time is left for teaching the curriculum.
Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Sandra J. Erickson said testing is necessary and valuable, especially because the district's curriculum uses many state guidelines and goals as benchmarks.
"The things that they are testing are in the curriculum anyway," Erickson said. "I think it's unfortunate that we have a misunderstanding that it's somehow separate from everything else we do."
Erickson said that since devoting more classroom time to tests, particularly the MSPAP, there has been a great improvement in students' skills.
"But are they enjoying what they're learning?" Procida asked, noting that some students lose interest in what they're learning because many of the state and standardized tests are formulaic and rote.
"That is one of my concerns, too," Erickson said.
Addressing class size
Mary Jo Neil, president of the county's council of PTSA organizations, asked about the district's progress in reducing class sizes in first and second grades and in core high school classes such as science, math and social studies.
Board Chairman Sandra H. French said some of the high school reductions were dependent upon the County Council's approval of much of the district's $340 million operating budget request. The county provides about 75 percent of the funding for schools.
County Executive James N. Robey will present his budget -- including how much of the school district's request he will fund -- to the County Council on April 17. A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for May 6.
French encouraged everyone at Thursday's meeting to attend the May hearing in support of the budget.
One parent, Stanley Daniello, criticized the irregular shape of existing district boundaries, and asked the board why school district boundaries couldn't be drawn in circles or squares around the individual schools.
"Why don't we have neighborhood schools?" he asked. "Why do we have these crazy districts?"
Associate Superintendent of Planning and Support Services Maurice Kalin said uneven growth around the county prevents officials from drawing boundary lines in neat boxes or circles.
Another parent, David Palasits, asked about the county's movement to block schedules at the high school and middle school level. Most of the county's high schools have four or eight classes a semester of about 90 minutes each. Middle schools, such as Harper's Choice, are beginning to try similar schedules.
The discussion led other parents to ask why there are so many different schedules in the school system.
Some schools have classes that are 40 to 50 minutes long. Others are 90 minutes. Some students go to the same eight classes every day. Others go to four classes on "A-days," and four other classes on "B-days." Still others go to four classes a semester, similar to a traditional college schedule.
"There are eight different schedules in the county," said board member Stephen C. Bounds. "We need to start looking at some alignment [of schedules]."