State suspends skills test

April 26, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

The annual academic test used to compare Maryland children to their peers nationwide will be discontinued for a year, giving students, teachers, parents and taxpayers a respite that many will welcome and some will resent.

State education officials yesterday voted to stop requiring schools to administer the annual Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS).

Maryland's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders completed the last of these mandated tests last month; districts may voluntarily give them again next year, but state educators anticipate many will take advantage of the break.

The change will mean that parents who look forward to learning their child's percentile score -- his placement compared to that of students nationally who took the same test -- may be disappointed. Although individual scores have not been available in every case because some districts test only a sample of students, parents also have used the districtwide scores to compare the quality of local schools.

Maryland will replace CTBS in 1997 with new exams that will be required only once every two years, potentially saving Maryland's school districts thousands of dollars in testing fees -- as much as $100,000 a year in the largest districts. The savings will be less in some districts that have been testing only a sample of students.

By changing the frequency of the test, the state will ease not only the financial burden but the workload associated with testing, which preoccupies many teachers as the exam season draws near each spring.

State educators are also considering a proposal to shift the testing from grades three, five and eight to grades two, four and six -- if a suitable and valid test for second-graders can be found.

"The goal is to spread the testing around, to take the burden of testing off the third, fifth and eighth grades," said William Lawrence, co-chairman of a state testing task force and assistant superintendent in Baltimore County.

Test-weary third-, fifth- and eighth-graders also take the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests of critical-thinking skills, a very different type of exam. The MSPAP test is used to measure how well school systems are meeting state-set academic standards.

The CTBS tells school systems how well students are retaining basic curricula compared to a national sample of students who took the test when it was developed. The annual CTBS test has been in use in Maryland for five years, but the baseline by which it measures the students' basic reading, language and math skills was set in 1989. It is now considered out of date, the task force yesterday told the state board of education.

Some critics of the national comparative tests have suggested Maryland should cease using them in this time of state-based reform. They include Calvert County school officials, who

yesterday sought and won a waiver until 2001 from using the national-comparison tests.

In high-achieving school districts, said state school board member Harry Shapiro, the national comparative tests such as CTBS produce a too-rosy picture that he called the "Lake Wobegon effect" -- "where all the children are above average."

Many school districts that score well on the CTBS test cannot produce satisfactory-level scores on the Maryland test; the state's goal is for better performance by the year 2000.

Both national comparative tests and state-standards tests are common in other states, with 34 states administering each. Of those, 25 states give both types, according to a survey completed for the Council for Educational Development and Research and the National Education Association.

Maryland's school superintendents suggested changing the test from annual to biennial, said Steve Ferrara, chief of the state education department's assessment branch.

There's no harm in switching, he said. To date, he said, the CTBS has shown only that Maryland students on average are achieving about the same as students in other states, with only slight fluctuations in the scores year to year.

In fact, for one group of children, the state school board's decisions could be cause for cheers: Because of the biennial scheduling of the new exams and the 1997 start date, students who entered first grade in September 1994 may advance through elementary school without ever taking the tests.

Only in school districts that voluntarily test more often than required by the state would this group have to take the national comparative tests.

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