Questioning the results MSPAP: Scores on state tests suggest a few avenues to be explored, such as whether school district size has an impact on performance.

The Education Beat

December 15, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THAT WAS SOME party the State Education Department put on Thursday to release the annual report card for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program!

The entire Establishment attended (but see below), and there was something for everyone: for the wonks, a fourth year of data in which to find meaning; for the critics, still more evidence that "Mizpap," as it is pronounced from Friendsville to Shelltown, belongs in the Kingdom of Oz.

Here are some odds and ends from this year's report, and the questions they raise:

Caroline County, which along with Baltimore City sued the state for more money in the first round of school finance litigation in 1979, is a rising MSPAP star. The Eastern Shore district showed solid results despite the fact that it is one of Maryland's poorest and spends less on each student than any other subdivision.

"Economic necessity should never be permitted to be an excuse" for poor performance, said the Caroline superintendent, R. Allan Gorsuch. Those words will reverberate in Montgomery County and other places where people believe money doesn't mean everything in education (unless you happen to have it).

Baltimore is poorer than Caroline, but not by much. Its enrollment is 20 times larger and its budget nine times larger. Its MSPAP scores are dismal. Questions: How much is academic performance a function of size? Or is there something in the water?

There are surprisingly few "outliers" -- schools performing much better or much worse than one would predict, given their economic status. But one such school is Fullerton Elementary in Baltimore County, one of only four schools in the state this year to score satisfactory or better in all of MSPAP's third-grade subtests. The other three, Cold Spring, Somerset and Potomac, are in Montgomery. Potomac's parents could buy Fullerton's, with cash to spare.

Question: What is Fullerton doing right that other middle- or low-income schools could copy?

MSPAP results in the three districts other than Baltimore City with 100,000 students or more -- Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- were sluggish. Only Anne Arundel of the big suburban subdivisions showed steady improvement, but the small and rural districts are the real gold-star winners this year.

Question: Since more than half of Maryland kids live in the city or suburbs, are we beginning to see statewide stagnation, making it impossible to reach the goal of a 70 percent "satisfactory" rate by 2000?

Third-graders didn't do especially well on this year's report card. Their overall scores were essentially unchanged, and increases in language arts scores largely counterbalanced decreases in math, science and (especially) social studies.

Question raised by colleague Jean Thompson: Are we finding that the young are too young to grasp the critical-thinking skills required by MSPAP, especially since third-graders vary so much in intellectual development?

Counting two years of pilot testing, MSPAP has six years of data. This means that this year's eighth-graders are the first group to have taken all three tests in third, fifth and eighth grades.

Question: The Education Department hasn't yet tracked these students' performance, but shouldn't it? "Never be lulled by the averages," advises Walter Sondheim, Baltimore community leader who could be called the father of MSPAP. (It was his Commission on School Performance that recommended statewide reform in 1989.) The more longitudinal the data, the more reliable they will be.

As he galloped into the sunset in March, John Golle, chief of Education Alternatives Inc., predicted that the 1996 scores would finally demonstrate the value of his bold experiment in school privatization-for-profit. The tests given in May would show the advances made in the Tesseract schools during the third year of EAI's contract with Baltimore City schools, he said.

He was wrong. The 1996 scores at all but one of the nine schools EAI ran (Edgewood Elementary) were either stagnant or in decline.

Question: If we're going to rely on MSPAP scores as an indication of school quality -- and many think that that is a reach -- would we be better off looking at the experimental Stadium School, a public school organized two years ago by the Waverly community, where 1996 MSPAP scores increased sevenfold?

Conspicuously absent from the MSPAP festival in his own city was the other Walter, city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey. Two of his top aides and his public relations representative were there, but not Amprey.

Question: Who can blame him? This was Grasmick's show, from the very nice bagel-and-cream-cheese spread to the balloons and made-for-TV production.

In higher education, women still are paid less

Factoid of the week: According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the average 1995 salary of a newly hired full-time assistant professor in the state's public colleges and universities was $45,900 for men and $41,100 for women.

It was $61,200 for men and $55,500 for women in business, (the best-paying field), $40,300 for men and $35,900 for women in the fine and applied arts. It was $41,300 for men and $39,400 for women in education.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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