City schools misuse state test questions Md. revising exam, probing abuse of items in teachers manual

"Breach of security"

Person responsible could be fired

October 21, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

A state test given to Maryland schoolchildren must be revised because Baltimore's school system has breached security by publishing test questions in a teachers' guide.

State school officials called the action a "breach of test security" and a copyright infringement. They are investigating whether the use of actual test questions was deliberate or inadvertent, and plan to bill the city school system for the cost of revising the exam, currently estimated at $2,000. City school officials also are investigating.

The questions are from the writing portion of the Maryland Student Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test administered last May, said Steve Ferrara, chief of the state Department of Education's assessment branch.

State school officials learned Oct. 3 that "a small number" of items from the last test -- with slight wording changes -- were included in a teachers' guide published by the Baltimore schools' Student Assessment Office, he said.

Mr. Ferrara characterized this incident as possibly the first of its kind to occur since MSPAP was developed.

Administered annually for the past five years, the MSPAP is used by the state to judge the quality of schools and to prompt reforms in teaching, putting great pressure on school systems to improve their performance.

Past test questions are sometimes recycled, and are considered "live" until the state stops using them. When a question is retired, the state sometimes allows school systems to use it to teach students how to take the test.

The questions in the teachers manual, though from last May, were still "live."

Asked whether a preliminary probe revealed evidence of a cheating plot, Baltimore Schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said yesterday, "I don't see that. I am concerned, however. It appears to be poor judgment. I don't see this as criminal, I see it as poor judgment."

He declined to comment further, he said, because the incident is being handled as a personnel matter with legal ramifications. State officials said the investigation could lead to the revocation or the suspension of an individual's state teaching certificate, and local penalties could include dismissal.

Called "The Baltimore City Model," the guide was written to help city teachers and their students understand the format of the MSPAP test, said a Baltimore school employee familiar with the booklet's preparation.

Staff in the Student Assessment Office used a copy of the May test as well as retired questions from 1993 to prepare the booklet, the employee said. Actual questions were altered -- with words substituted, for example -- so the staff believed it had not breached test security, the employee said. Department supervisors began distributing the booklets as teaching aids.

"When a test item from any test is divulged, it calls into question whether it can be used in the future," said Mr. Ferrara. "It becomes a matter of judgment as to how badly security was breached, and whether you have to retire the test question."

Dr. Grasmick has asked Dr. Amprey to retrieve from schools any of the estimated 2,000 booklets that were printed for use by teachers who must prepare students to take the test.

Efforts were being made this week to recall them to the school system's Student Assessment Office, which produced the book. Only a few dozen remained unaccounted for yesterday, said a Baltimore administrator familiar with the booklets.

Mr. Ferrara said the security violation wounds the integrity of the state's school reform program and inconveniences the test-preparation staff.

"For the Department of Education, there's a loss of property we invested in. There's additional work we had not planned for. We're talking about tax dollars," he said.

"We have 700 teachers per year involved in developing and scoring MSPAP, and thousands of teachers who administer the test, and they do these things honestly and fairly. When an educator, whether it is inadvertently or intentionally, takes steps to improve test scores in an unethical fashion it's a terribly bad reflection on the thousands of educators who do their jobs effectively and ethically," Mr. Ferrara said.

School officials declined to release copies of the test items and the Baltimore guide and would not discuss the work needed to amend the 1996 test. The test had been assembled but not printed when state officials became aware of Baltimore's teaching guide Oct. 3, they said.

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