On November 10, 2015, the MCPS Board of Education received a memorandum from the interim superintendent Larry A. Bowers. The document called for the elimination of two-hour semester exams, to be replaced with in-class marking period assessments.
Although the issue of testing was far from new, the plans discussed in the memorandum did not come to fruition until the beginning of this school year. And as the first marking period draws to a close, teachers are implementing the new Required Quarterly Assessments (RQAs) for the first time.
The main controversy surrounded the final exam weeks in January and June. “It was basically a concern that we could accomplish pretty much the same thing that was handled with one two-hour final exam, if we condensed it a bit over the two quarters,” said MCPS Board of Education President Michael Durso.
Beyond these initials concerns, there was unease amongst parents and teachers with the sheer amount of standardized tests students had to take every year. “Everyone’s taking IB and AP tests, but also these exit exams for high school (the HSAs), and then they have final exams as well,” said math teacher John Chase.
The introduction of RQAs is intended to address these problems. Rather than using up an entire week with testing, RQAs are typically going to be taken in one class period. They will be instituted in all classes with county-based curriculums, including middle school classes that are for high school credit.
The format of the exams is remarkably similar to previous final exams, but with less material, according to teachers. “The content seems similar in both difficulty and scope to the final exams,” said Mr. Chase.
In Mr. Bowers’ memorandum, it was reported that the transition was a result of public opinion as well as overall reforms to the U.S. public education system. He noted these in-class assessments would decrease the overall amount of time students spend on standardized tests while adding two extra weeks of instructional time for teachers. Overall, Mr. Bowers wrote that the change would reap a multitude of benefits.
While some teachers are adapting to the change, there have nonetheless been various concerns with different aspects of the process. Biology teacher Cynthia Stevens expressed troubles with finding time to grade. “From a teacher’s perspective, with semester exams there were two writing tasks to grade, with this one there will be 3 writing tasks with no release time to grade,” said Mrs. Stevens. Furthermore, she reported that the biology RQAs, meant to be composed of two 20-minute tasks within one class period, were taking students a minimum of 35 minutes per task.
Spanish teacher Olga Benito-Kristovich also voiced concerns with the length of time the RQAs were taking. “In my class, it took us four days to complete the test and that takes time away from instruction,” said Mrs. Benito-Kristovich.
Another concern is the review component of the RQAs. In previous years, the county would develop and distribute review guides before final exams; this practice was discontinued for RQAs. Mr. Chase believes that this lack of review represents a “shift in philosophy” for MCPS. The new theory is that review time should be distributed throughout the quarter, rather than compacted into the week or day before a cumulative assessment.
Mrs. Benito-Kristovich agrees with this sentiment, stating that review should be done “on a daily basis in the class for any given topic”. However, other teachers fret about student performance on tests. “We have to have a reality check here. Kids, parents, teachers–we want to make sure students are prepared for these assessments,” said Mr. Chase.
Overall, while the RQAs have been met with mixed receptions, there seems to be agreement on the importance of cumulative assessments. Many classes without county-based curriculums (which are therefore not required to take RQAs) have either adopted the RQA or administered some form of their own quarterly exam. For example, Government and law teacher Jonathan Taylor says he is administering his own assessments to his magnet and IB government classes, citing the need for some form of cumulative grade to tie the quarter together.
There are still those who feel that the advent of RQAs has produced more problems than it has solved. Others embrace the idea of RQAs, yet feel that execution of this new policy could have been better. While Mr. Durso sees the validity of these arguments, he feels that it is perhaps too early to make a judgment on the efficacy of the assessments. Likening the RQAs to the recent change in bell times, Mr. Durso pointed out, “Anytime there’s change, especially in education, it’s very difficult.”
Ultimately, the future of the RQAs is unknown to even those at the highest levels of education policy. While it’s uncertain whether or not they are here to stay, their implementation points to a gradual shift in policy for MCPS towards less standardized testing and more instructional time. “It’s all part of a larger process sometimes,” said Mr. Durso.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Angela Sun of Richard Montgomery High School