A Test That Gives Teachers the Fantods

April 25, 1994|By TIM BAKER

If you care about improving the quality of education in Maryland, ask the candidates for governor if they will fight to preserve and strengthen the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

That's the controversial three-year-old state program which now tests third-, fifth- and eighth-graders every year to measure their skills and knowledge in reading, writing, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

These new statewide tests differ dramatically from the old standardized ones, like the California Achievement Test. First of all, they are not ''norm-based.'' That is, they don't measure student performance merely by comparing it to the ''norm'' established by a designated set of students.

Instead, these new tests are ''criterion-referenced.'' That means they measure student performance against objective rather than relative standards and determine how well students have mastered the skills and knowledge which the state has decided are important.

The new tests are also different in that they require more than the simple skills which are usually sufficient to answer multiple-choice questions. Instead they require students to take what they have learned and apply it in ways that demand problem-solving, decision-making and reasoning abilities.

All of this is intended to measure how well students have developed the high-order thinking proficiency they will need to compete in a knowledge-based global economy. The program is intended to lead the state's educational system toward ''world class'' levels of achievement.

Measuring student performance in this way, however, is not what's controversial about the program. Indeed, the program isn't designed to evaluate individual students at all. Instead it's designed to evaluate individual schools and to hold them accountable for their teaching performance.

The School Performance Assessment Program intentionally holds schools to very high standards. They're so high the State Board of Education doesn't even expect them to be met until the year 2000. But the tests should be challenging. Otherwise they won't lift our educational sights or accomplishments.

For the present, however, test results have embarrassed individual schools and whole school districts. Last year, almost all of Maryland's 1,000 public elementary and middle schools failed to meet the state's admittedly ambitious standards. In only one category, fifth-grade math, did more than 4 percent of state schools achieve satisfactory ratings. In eighth-grade reading, none did.

When front-page headlines blaze with those kinds of school scores, they make a lot of people look bad. So these tests have inevitably infuriated everyone responsible for local education -- mayors, county executives, school boards, principals and, most

important, teachers.

From the beginning, the Maryland State Teachers Association has regarded these tests with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Although it grudgingly accepts the principle of accountability, at one point or another it has objected to almost everything else.

Of course teachers are wary. For years they've been bombarded with new ideas, policies and regulations, so they're dubious about any new initiative, especially one which judges them.

This isn't surprising. After all, if newspaper columnists were ever tested on their grammar, let alone their ideas, you can bet we'd splatter a lot of newsprint with complaints about the exam questions.

The state teachers' association, however, has more than words to back up its viewpoints. It's the most powerful single political organization in Maryland, and although it rarely passes up an opportunity to proclaim its devotion to children, it never misses one to promote the organized interests of teachers.

Right now MSTA is questioning the gubernatorial candidates on the issues. Whoever wins its endorsement next month will automatically pick up a host of campaign workers and a lot of money.

That kind of political power can bend a candidate's opinion about the tests, especially if the results have recently raised doubts about the educational progress achieved in his or her own county. But a candidate who takes pride in putting policy before politics ought to evaluate the program on its own merits before making commitments to an organized interest group.

All over America school systems are struggling to raise standards and performance. No one is exactly sure what will work, especially with disadvantaged children and limited budgets. So schools and teachers must experiment with different pedagogical strategies and techniques. In order to determine which ones are effective and which ones aren't, they need some objective measure by which to test and evaluate them.

In that effort Maryland has become a national leader in the last three years. Our School Performance Assessment Program is a model for reform. It enables us to tell what works and what doesn't, which schools are succeeding and which ones aren't.

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