A test with no standards, that is itself a standard

June 07, 1996|By MICHAEL HOLDEN

CHESTERTOWN -- Another school year ends, and we are one year closer to the year 2000, by which time, we are told, 70 percent of all third-, fifth-, and eighth-graders in Maryland public schools reach a ''satisfactory'' score as measured by the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test.

What does ''satisfactory'' mean? No one really knows. The State Department of Education has defined the word as, ''A realistic and rigorous level of achievement indicating [the schools'] proficiency in meeting the needs of the students.''

What are ''the needs of the students?'' What is the ''level of achievement?'' Here is where things get cloudy. And cloudier.

In the third-grade MSPAP test, for example, students were given a stalk of celery and a glass of red water. They were asked to explain what would happen to the celery if it were left in the water overnight.

Thinking without knowing

More and more Maryland parents object to this kind of hypothesizing, noting that their children can answer the MSPAP practice and test questions, but don't know basic multiplication tables and can't identify parts of speech in a sentence. They don't know anything about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

Parents also think that the MSPAP test Michael Holden

wastes weeks of instructional time. All spring, before the test is given in May, students are taught how to take the test. They spend hours of class time reviewing test questions instead of learning the basics of math, reading and writing.

A recent survey by the Rand Institute found that two-thirds of Maryland teachers said they had de-emphasized areas not on the MSPAP. These areas included basic skills and drills.

Last year, the result of all of this test-prepping and MSPAP mania was pathetic. Just 39.7 percent of the public-school students who were tested (about 60,000 out of 150,000) scored ''satisfactory'' or better.

The MSPAP has been touted nationally by Nancy Grasmick, the state schools superintendent, as the key to educational reform in Maryland. But no one seems clear about what it measures. The State Department of Education claims that it measures how well schools prepare students for higher education, how students are performing, and how best to improve schools.

If the state is so concerned about how schools prepare students for college, why is it testing students in elementary school? Kids in grades three and five are 9 and 7 years away from college.

Even the eighth-graders have 4 years before reaching college. When these students reach high school, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) -- a nationally known, standardized test -- will test their preparation for college.

Four times costlier

MSPAP is very expensive. It costs $20 per student tested, compared with $5 per pupil for the nationally standardized Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS). The latter test has been used in Maryland for years, but is now being phased out -- perhaps because it shows that Maryland is not doing all that well when compared with other states. Many school critics believe Maryland has stopped using the CTBS because its results cannot be manipulated. The MSPAP has no such national norms of objectivity. It can mean whatever the state testers want it to mean.

Parents like the CTBS because it gives them a report on each student, broken down into subjects and showing how the student compares to all students who have taken the test nationally.

The MSPAP gives parents no information about their children's performance. Each student takes only about a third of the test. Results are given only about the overall performance of each school and each school district.

The test's own reliability and validity have never been assessed. Reliability refers to whether a test measures something consistently and accurately. Validity refers to whether a test measures what it is supposed to measure.

Consider this. In 1995, only 40 percent of the students who took the MSPAP scored a ''satisfactory'' or better. Yet, 99 percent of all students in grades one to six in Maryland were promoted to the next grade. In Baltimore, only 14 percent scored a ''satisfactory'' or better. Yet, 97 percent were promoted.

One must ask what the MSPAP scores really mean. What kind of national reform movement is Maryland's supposedly leading with this ''assessment?''

9- Michael Holden is a public-school parent.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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