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Sept. 20, 2007

MSDE to eliminate HSA writing sections

by Sarah Kinter, Print Managing News Editor and Sophie Schwadron, Online Editor-in-Chief
The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) plans to remove the brief constructed response (BCR) and extended constructed response (ECR) sections of the required High School Assessments (HSA) beginning in May 2009, MSDE Education Program Specialist William Reinhard said. The change is in response to complaints of slow grading from Maryland school systems, including MCPS.

All four exams English, Government, Biology and Algebra will be entirely multiple choice.

According to MCPS Director of Public Information Kate Harrison, MCPS welcomes the change. "If the constructed answer questions are eliminated, they're saying they will get responses back to schools in three weeks," she said. "We see that as a real positive."

Whereas multiple choice answers are graded quickly by scantron machines, written responses must be evaluated by hand. Reinhard confirmed that the elimination of the writing portions will reduce the turnaround time for scoring from nine to an expected three weeks.

Reinhard said that MSDE Superintendent Nancy Grasmick made the decision to change the assessments after consulting with all 24 local Maryland school superintendents, all of whom supported the change. The decision was officially announced to Maryland school systems the week of Sept. 3.

According to Reinhard, the MSDE has been planning the change for the past few years. "We knew that it's something we've been working on with the test vendor," he said. "The key was not to change the rigor of the test with the removal of the writing. We're now satisfied."

Academic leaders at Blair had mixed reactions to the change. The English, Social Studies and ESOL departments all expressed concerns that the elimination of writing questions from the exams will have negative effects on the curriculum and student performance. "With the tremendous emphasis on testing, at least the HSAs were supposedly designed not as another multiple choice test but a test that would focus teaching on what should be done in the classroom," social studies resource teacher George Vlasits said. "[This] is the opposite of that."

ESOL resource teacher Joseph Bellino voiced concerns that the removal of writing will hurt student performance. "The writing they do is not just formulaic; they are thinking and responding to a text," he said. "By not doing that, the kids lose out." According to Bellino, ESOL students typically find more success on written answers. "Multiple choice is black and white there's not as much room for shades of understanding. If you miss one or two words, you may miss the whole question."

English resource teacher Vickie Adamson is similarly worried that the removal of writing from the exams will mean the removal of writing from the English curriculum. Reinhard acknowledged hearing such concern from throughout the county, but said he does not believe the change in the assessments will affect writing instruction. Otherwise, Reinhard said, feedback to the announcement of the upcoming change has been positive.

Both the science and math departments predicted little shift in their curricula to suit the new test. "We're still going to do literacy we're still going to do ECRs and BCRs in class," math resource teacher Shelley Sherman said.

"The county final will still have BCRs and ECRs so we still need to prepare students," acting science department chair Leslie Van said. The change "won't affect how we teach."

Van also acknowledged the benefits of eliminating the essays. "It's always good to get data faster," she said.

Reinhard is unsure what effect the change will have on exam expense. "Until the tests have been developed and scored we have no estimate at this point of cost," he said.

Beginning with the class of 2009, Maryland public school students are required to pass the four exams to graduate.



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  • af on September 21, 2007 at 6:54 AM
    Well, that means that the class of 2009 won't be affected by this at all.
  • whee on September 21, 2007 at 8:52 AM
    The number of acronyms in the first paragraph is frightening.
  • NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! on September 21, 2007 at 9:24 AM
    That is not cool. my hand was about to fall off after i wrote my gov't exam...
    so they have to pass it but not write anything?....way to go....
  • yay!!!!!!!!!!! on September 22, 2007 at 2:02 PM
    this is really coooooooool !!
  • ..... on September 23, 2007 at 9:38 PM
    This is ridiculous. I'm sure all of the students will be thrilled now that they no longer have to write BCRs and ECRs, but what about the English exam? I know that you can test one's comprehension of grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. through multiple choice, but what about one's ability to put all of those factors together and WRITE? It's so pathetic that Montgomery County is more worried about appeasing parents than with actually TESTING their students (the whole point of the HSAs was preposterous to begin with - now it's 100% pointless).
  • Eli Barnett on September 24, 2007 at 5:04 PM
    This is pure stupidity.

    Oh wait, we can't put forth the effort to grade writing, so we'll swap to multiple choice, because people don't have the patience to wait for test results? That's ridiculous.

    The writing section before was formulaic and rather bland, yes. That much is true. However, the solution to that is not to simply get rid of it. How about simply improving the writing sections?

    Wait, no, that's not possible, that would actually be an improvement which requires, *gasp*, effort!

    On a completely different note:

    THESE SECURITY CODES ARE TOO HARD. MAKE THEM SHORTER AND EASIER TO READ!
  • concerned parent (View Email) on September 29, 2007 at 11:13 AM
    for some students removing the writen portion of the HSA will prove to be helpful. In the case of my son, some students just ran out of time writing the bcr and ecr portion of the exam. However, I think it's unfair to the students like my son who has already taken the exam with the writing section implemented and failed it. They were in my words used as experimental rats with this newly administered exam. I think they should be afforded the same opportunities as the forth coming classes to execute this very contriversal exam. I welcome your feedback on this issue and I do intend to take it to the MCPS board.
  • Eli Barnett on October 3, 2007 at 10:18 AM
    If your son ran out of time, I hate to say it, but it's probably his fault, not the school's.

    Again, attacking the effectiveness of the test is irrelevant when it comes down to "should we have a writing section."

    Writing is an important part of the testing. You cannot standardize everything, and the writing, albeit formulaic, was one of the only things not graded by a machine.

    I personally think "standardized" testing is a joke, but nonetheless, if a student fails the test, that student probably doesn't know the material.

    There were not mass amounts of students failing the exam due to running out of time on the writing exam. In fact, the time it takes to *finish* the exam was not the main issue in removing the writing section. I don't know if you've seen the test and the amount of time they give you, but it's usually enough.

    The writing section SHOULD NOT be removed. It should simply be improved. Make the writing a bit less formulaic, work on faster grading, but don't get rid of an important part of the test.
  • hooray (View Email) on November 27, 2007 at 9:55 AM
    no more ecr yea this is so much better b/c it was rediculas every body should be thankful and in bio math or gov't theres no need 4 bcr now english maybe 1
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