Graphic by Mark Schaefer
Progress Checks have replaced Required Quarterly Assessments (RQAs) and students will begin taking the county-created assessments toward the end of the second quarter in various courses spread out across numerous content areas. RQAs replaced county formatives and final exams for specific courses for the 2016-17 school year, but Progress Checks are not meant to be considered final exams, according to the MCPS website.
Progress Checks Replace RQAs
Progress Checks, assessments that evaluate students’ learning throughout the year, occur around the middle to the end of the semester in specific windows outlined by MCPS curriculum specialists in the Evidence of Learning timeline. In addition, Common Writing Tasks, assessments that test literacy measures and give students feedback on their performance in relation to county standards, will also be administered to students at different times throughout the semester. Both act as formative assessments to help the county and schools track student progress.
In specific courses, MCPS Progress Checks, or assessments for learning, will be given once each quarter and weighted 10 percent of each marking period grade, according to the MCPS website.
“The fundamental purpose of the Progress Checks is to check the progress of students during the semester, as opposed to the end, and use the information gathered to inform and improve instruction for students,” chief MCPS Academic Officer Dr. Maria Navarro said. “The term is being used to bring greater emphasis to the intended purpose of the assessments.”
RQAs, which replaced county formatives last year, have now been eliminated in all subjects including English, science, social studies, world languages and technology subjects. Progress Checks have been added to ninth through twelfth grade English, Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus and ninth and twelfth grade ESOL levels one through five. Additionally, Common Writing Tasks will be assessed in ninth through twelfth grade English, U.S. History, National, State and Local (NSL) Government, Biology and Chemistry subjects.
Furthermore, these new assessments will not replace the federal and state mandated Maryland High School Assessment (HSA) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), but will be in addition to them. The new assessments will not be included in IB and AP courses.
Changes Are a Result of Feedback
Montgomery County has attempted to stay ahead of the curve with a statewide transition away from standardized testing, which is becoming legislatively reinforced.
“The MCPS approach to mandated assessment continues to evolve, with emphasis on multiple measures to track student progress and a reduction of mandated district testing, aligned to the Evidence of Learning Framework and the More Learning, Less Testing Act [passed June 1],” MCPS director of secondary curriculum Scott Murphy said.
However, the change was not only a result of pressure from the State Board of Education, but from internal pressures throughout the county.
“Last year, MCPS received wide-ranging feedback from teachers, students and parents/guardians during the first year of RQAs about the overall assessment experience, stress on students and about too many required assessments in several subjects,” Murphy said.
One major aim of the county is to reduce examination time in order to allow teachers and students to have more instructional time during the school year, according to the MCPS website. This is because in prior years an entire week of half days composed of two two-hour final exams was administered at the end of each semester. Now without the exams, teachers will be able to utilize these weeks as instructional time and stretch out their curriculum.
“I really appreciate the extra week of instruction; it prevents my teachers from having to cram information as they run out of time during the weeks leading up to the exams,” junior Drew Latos said. “I have also noticed significant improvement with my retention of the content when I am exposed to it over a more extended period of time.”
Another issue MCPS sought to resolve was the ambiguity that was caused by an inherent lack of feedback that came with semester exams. Students did not know their score until they received their semester report cards, and in order to view their exams they had to make a formal request to the school. The new assessments have addressed this by sending mandatory score feedback reports home to parents following each test.
Effect on New Grading Policy
Although there seems to be some consensus on the benefits of incorporating the progress checks, the more controversial aspect of the new grading policy has become the elimination of downward trends in calculating semester grades. Prior to the policy change, when students received two different quarter grades within one letter of each other, they would receive the grade from the latter quarter. Now students receive the higher grade irrespective of what quarter it was in.
The change, which has been appreciated by many students, has not come without its pitfalls. Some students have found themselves less motivated to raise borderline grades during the second and fourth quarters as they know it will ultimately have no effect on their semester grade.
“In all honestly I have noticed myself slacking during the second half of the semesters under the new grading policy,” senior Paul Sandford said. “It is hard to force yourself to give 100 percent on end of the semester assignments, when you know you will get the same semester grade even if you perform poorly.”
As students and staff begin to settle into an understanding of this new grading policy, it remains unclear what effect, if any, these new progress checks will have on students grades. If students grow apathetic in second and fourth quarters, the data MCPS is gathering through progress checks may be skewed.
This apathy has fed into fears about the potential negative effect that the grading policy could have on students’ retention of content in courses with and without progress checks. Higher level classes such as IB and AP where students need to stay continuously engaged as their content will reappear in exams at the end of the year are also showing declining motivation.
“I have noticed specifically in my higher level classes that even some of the brighter students are taking advantage of the new grading policy, because they know they can get an
A during the first quarter and a B during the second one and it does not change their semester grade,” world language resource and Spanish teacher Elise Seitz said.