Columbia man designing national tests After helping create MSPAP, educator broadens his sights

September 15, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

It's not the test answers that keep Steve Ferrara up late. It's the questions.

A Columbia resident and one of the creators of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests, Ferrara is considered among the nation's top test designers. He's been tapped to work on one of President Clinton's top priorities -- voluntary national tests in math and reading.

The tests pass a milestone today when educators recommend test details to a national panel in Washington. Ferrara is on to the next phase -- developing test questions and concentrating on the tests' reliability, validity and scoring.

It was with considerable reluctance that Ferrara recently left the Maryland State Department of Education after 12 years to become technical director for the company hired to develop the fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math tests that could be taken by millions of youngsters annually.

"What I'm interested in is having an influence on what's being taught and how it's being taught," said Ferrara, 46, who went to work in Washington two weeks ago for the American Institutes of Research, which has a $13 million contract to develop the tests over the next 18 months.

The controversial tests, he predicted, "will start a discussion in families, in homes, about what is going on in schools and they will improve student learning."

Clinton proposed the tests in his State of the Union address in February, calling them crucial for setting standards and raising skill levels in an age of intensifying economic and technological competition. He has been stumping hard for them, stopping in a Gambrills classroom last week to make his latest pitch to those who will actually take the tests. The voluntary 90-minute tests -- a combination of multiple choice, short- and long-answer questions would be given every spring, beginning in 1999, and results would be reported directly to students, parents and teachers.

Maryland is one of only seven states -- plus 15 urban school districts -- that have agreed to give them.

Critics are many.

Conservatives claim the tests are intrusive and will result in a national curriculum. Liberals say the assessments will spawn unfair comparisons among widely diverse students and districts and may lead to teacher sanctions and cuts in federal funds.

Back-to-basics educators -- many of whom support the tests in theory -- say they are being developed too quickly and will further "dumb down" public-school expectations.

In the midst of this fray is Ferrara, a soft-spoken but intense New Englander.

Though AIR has contracted with publishers and other consultants to write the questions, Ferrara is responsible for their technical aspects and for making recommendations to the final decision-makers.

The former teacher must tackle not only the prosaic, but also the philosophical.

Do the tests have enough multiple choice items? Too many essay questions? Can students understand them? Will the answers really show how well a student knows the subject?

Will they change teaching? Will children learn more, or more effectively?

Much of the criticism he calls "misguided," using the same arguments he did when Maryland teachers and parents attacked the MSPAP tests.

As director of testing for the state department, he was in a core group of designers who created the controversial but groundbreaking MSPAP tests that try to measure not only what children know but how well they can apply it. Every third-, fifth- and eighth-grader in Maryland public schools has taken the test since 1991.

In May, Ferrara was hired as a part-time consultant for MPR Associates, the educational consulting firm responsible for the first phase of the federal test and which will make its recommendations in Washington today and tomorrow.

"They needed someone who understands the test design issues and who also understands curriculum and instruction issues. That's what I do," he said.

Ferrara advised content committees and reconciled technical issues. For instance, when the reading committee discussed what children would read and answer questions about in the fourth-grade tests, members initially settled on four lengthy readings.

"The number of readings is a technical question," Ferrara said. "I alerted the committee that four probably is too small a number" for a valid assessment of a child's reading ability. So the committee's recommendation will be six readings of varying lengths from authors of different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, he said.

After splitting his summer between the state education department and national test committee meetings in Washington hotels and around the country, Ferrara was tapped by AIR.

"What Steve brings to this, in addition to his experience in Maryland, is that he's extremely well-respected by other test directors," said Archie Lapointe, director of AIR's center for assessment. "We courted him long and hard. We would not let him say no."

One of the mathematics committee members sees Ferrara's involvement as a big plus.

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