Parents Threaten Boycott of State Tests Over Heterogeneous Grouping
Superintendent warns of consequences to schools if boycott moves forward at county schools.
Parents upset over heterogeneous grouping in classrooms have threatened to boycott standardized state testing as a way to make their point.
Grouping high- and low-performing students together in classrooms has become a battleground between parents and faculty for several months. On Wednesday, a group of these parents launched what they called a new initiative to get the board’s attention.
Karen Colburn, parent of a Central Middle School student, said she has helped to organize a group and obtained 400 signatures countywide opposed to heterogeneous grouping.
But even 1,000 signatures likely wouldn’t achieve the group's goal, she said. Instead, Colburn announced a new approach. They are spreading the word among parents to have their children opt out of taking the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) test.
“This action is the product of your inaction,” Colburn said at the meeting.
While the issue surfaced in the spring at Annapolis High School (AHS), parents became vocal against heterogeneous grouping over the summer. As the months went by, more and more parents became involved as they learned it was happening at their schools.
Gus Pollak, the parent of a student at Crofton Middle School, described how his 11-year-old child had a test read aloud to her by a teacher because some in the class couldn’t read. He said he understood the purpose of heterogeneous grouping, but that high-performing students shouldn’t suffer so low-performing ones can get ahead.
“A gap that wide is impossible to teach,” Pollak said.
It appears to be a practice occurring in several schools across the county, including Central Middle School, Crofton Middle School and Annapolis Middle School. And the list seems to be growing.
When asked how many schools are using the teaching method, Assistant Superintendent George Arlotto said there’s no easy way for the school system to track it internally. It is not a system-wide policy, but a decision by principals for their schools. Thus, it could be happening in many schools, he said.
Parent John Kolesar said boycotting the MSA was the group’s last card to play against the school system. He said his investigation into what was going on in his child’s classroom has only produced frustrating results, with some teachers being told not to comment on heterogeneous grouping.
Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said boycotting the MSA would be detrimental to schools. Federal No Child Left Behind standards require 95 percent testing participation at schools. Poor results could place a school below that threshold. Low-scoring schools are placed on a watch list until they improve. If they don’t bring their testing scores up, the state can intervene.
Board member Andrew Pruski, who works as Baltimore County schools’ supervisor of assessment, offered some more detail. He said it was up to parents whether their students participated in testing. But he was worried about the consequences. Particularly special-needs students, who depend on the testing data for accurate placement within the school system.
“It’s more than just the score. There are other things that are determined,” he said. “There are further ramifications.”
But some board members said parents were asking the board to go beyond their scope of duty. Board member Teresa Milio Birge said it wasn’t the board’s job to tell teachers what to do.
“Legally, our responsibility is to set policy. The superintendent runs the school system,” Birge said. “What you’re asking is not something the board can do.”
Board member Solon Webb replied to Birge, saying despite that, this was something the board should investigate further.
“What I’m hearing is symptomatic of something, and it bears investigation by this board,” he said.
Allen Kruger, the parent of two students at Central Middle, challenged the board to take a position, and not "hide" what’s going on at schools.
Kruger referenced an email correspondence he had with Board President Patricia Nalley in which she said no directive had been given to schools to implement heterogeneous grouping, and indicated that principals “are charged with, and responsible for, the scheduling of their buildings.”
“Some of you should have the guts to tell us what’s really going on, and none of you so far have done it,” Kruger said to a round of applause from the audience.
AHS principal Donald Lilley has made it known that he would like to implement heterogeneous grouping. It was scheduled to go into effect this school year but Lilley held off in May, saying he’d like more time to study its effectiveness and to gather the input of parents.
He has since said that he planned to write a letter to parents announcing his plans for heterogeneous grouping at AHS soon.
At Sept. 21’s school board meeting, the Annapolis Education Commission made a presentation indicating that parents were still skeptical of the grouping procedure. Jeff Macris, chairman of the AEC, said more positive proof of the method was needed before implementation.
“Parents want to see demonstrable proof that it can work in our local schools under Annapolis’ unique set of challenges and circumstances,” Macris said.
Parents interested in signing the petition can get more information here: http://www.change.org/petitions/patricia-nalley-pres-aac-board-of-education-halt-heterogeneous-classes-at-cms-until-further-study