Behind the Statistics and Scores Is a Child

September 21, 1994|By ANDREW McBEE

The flaws in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) were present at its conception.

In 1989, Governor Schaefer's Commission on School Performance (known as the Sondheim Commission) issued its report on public education in Maryland. The committee's 11 members had been selected, for the most part, from the state's business and political communities -- only five members held positions in the field of education, and only one of these was a teacher.

Why the governor sought advice about schooling from bankers, corporate executives and state senators remains a mystery; nevertheless, the recommendations of the Sondheim Commission served as the basis for MSPAP.

The key concept in MSPAP is ''accountability,'' a term that appeared in the Reagan years and is now considered the bottom line in educational reform. That is, MSPAP establishes acceptable and unacceptable levels of attendance rate, promotion rate and dropout rate, and holds schools ''accountable'' for meeting its standards. The program also includes batteries of tests for students to take in the third, fifth and eighth grades. If the performance level of students in a particular school is not acceptable, the state may replace the entire administration of the school.

Although ''accountability,'' or the wish to ''give taxpayers their money's worth,'' may be a commendable idea, it cannot serve as the basis of realistic educational reform. Education is simply not a process that can be measured in cut-and-dried figures. A child's experience in school -- why he comes or doesn't come, why he works or doesn't work, why he likes school or hates it -- is highly subjective. It is the result of each child's interactions with teachers, administrators and peers, and these interactions are subtle and complex. Moreover, the attitude of his parents is perhaps the most important element in a child's school performance.

MSPAP, with its misguided emphasis on statistics and test scores, ignores all these factors. It does not take into account the fundamental nature of the educational process or the problems that can occur.

If a student hooks school regularly, or fails a grade, or drops out, then whatever his teachers are doing in their classes has been perceived by that student as meaningless, for one reason or another. It may be because the books and the curriculum are outdated and boring. It may be because the student has spent so much of his life watching television that he cannot concentrate for more than 10 minutes. It may be because he is one of 40 students crowded into the classroom and the teacher must lecture continually just to keep order. It may be because he is aware of the lucrative job market in dealing illicit drugs on his street. Whatever the cause of his apathy may be, MSPAP is not addressing it.

Specifically, MSPAP does nothing to change what is happening in the classroom. While the program's tests may be designed to encourage problem solving and cooperative learning, it is doubtful that students will make any connection between the tests and the rest of their school experience. And it is equally unlikely that teachers will substantially change their teaching methods because of a new state-ordered test.

As for the standards for attendance and promotion, the program includes no mechanism to help schools improve their performance. The state has simply given the order: ''Here are the standards -- meet them.''

A successful program for school reform must focus on the educational process itself, as it occurs in the classroom. Instead of blindly setting standards, a reform program must begin by asking questions: What is the curriculum? Do its goals and objectives need revision? Which teaching methods motivate students to learn, and which do not? What are the characteristics of a successful student, an effective teacher, a ''good'' school? What can other schools do to build these characteristics into their own program? How can a school effectively respond to the changes in society that influence how its students think?

The people best qualified to answer these questions are the ones ignored by MSPAP: teachers. It is interesting to note that, while American corporations are restructuring to allow for ''employee empowerment'' and to facilitate the flow of communication from the bottom up, the educational bureaucracy remains firmly entrenched and continues to hand down such programs as MSPAP. The important decisions about what will happen in our schools are never made by the people who work there. And one school year after another goes by, and nothing changes.

Andrew McBee teaches English in the Harford County school system.

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