The 2013-2014 school year may seem like a long way off, but state school officials are already fretting over a perfect storm of education reforms that could make today's extensive state testing regimen seem like a snap.
That's the year when students could take as many as five state-mandated tests, on top of their teachers' occasional pop quizzes and the tests given several times each year by the local school systems. While the Maryland School Assessment will be phased out, those tests will still overlap with a new battery of four new assessments to be field tested here and in 23 states.
"We are going to have students sitting in testing situations for weeks on end" if all of them are given, said interim state schools Superintendent Bernard Sadusky.
Parents and educators have raised concerns about the potential strain on children and teachers alike, and some officials have questioned whether schools have the technology to administer all of the tests online.
Sadusky and state school board members are trying to make sure that students aren't buried in tests as they navigate through some of the most significant reforms in education in years. Some have suggested dropping current testing a year early or slowing down the introduction of the new tests.
Over the next three years, the state will change what is taught, how it is tested, and how teachers and principals are evaluated. The state agreed to make most of the changes, which are supported by many educators around the state, in order to secure $250 million in federal funds doled out to states as an incentive to make the changes.
School districts next year will begin phasing in a new curriculum for reading and math based on standards agreed to by more than 40 states. For the first time, a majority of students in the country will be expected to learn the same skills in each grade from kindergarten through high school.
In addition, new tests are being created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 24 states including Maryland.
Those tests, to be given online in grades three through 11, will be compatible with the new standards and curriculum and will allow Maryland students to be compared with about 25 million other students also taking the tests around the country.
But Maryland education leaders are worried that many schools may not have the technology available to make an immediate switch to online tests, and that teachers inundated by other changes may not be able to prepare students.
Betty Weller, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, said teachers will have to juggle the old and new curriculum at the same time and prepare students to take the MSAs as well as the new tests. To make teachers even more anxious, they will begin to be judged for their performance that year under a new evaluation system that takes into account how much their students have learned — and for some, how well their students do on the tests.
"There are three different trains racing down the tracks at the same time; do they crash or do they meld?" said Weller, who added that what she sees ahead worries her.
And some parents say children shouldn't be put under such testing stress.
Alan Southworth, whose child attends Middleborough Elementary School in Baltimore County, said that although testing is necessary to assess student performance, "you simply cannot keep anyone, especially young children, under a constant strain of being tested repeatedly." He also pointed out that in the county, only half of schools are air-conditioned and temperatures can be high in September, May and June, when some of the testing takes place.
Maryland may be one of the first states to air its concerns and to question the timeline that a dozen states committed to last year when they won Race to the Top, a federal grant awarded to states that agreed to education reforms, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonpartisan group that has studied education policy decisions.
"It is one thing to build a new accountability system. It is another thing to implement it," he said, particularly while trying to put a new teacher evaluation system in place.
Jennings believes that either U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should consider waiving federal testing requirements for a year while the new assessments are being phased in, or the new assessments should be slowed down.
Laura Slover, senior vice president of Achieve, a not-for-profit group managing the creation of the PARCC tests, says some of the state board's concerns can be addressed so that students and schools are not overwhelmed with testing.
At a recent state board meeting in Maryland, some members suggested the state either drop the MSAs a year early or slow down the introduction of the new tests written by the consortium of states.