Finding a balance in MSPAP and basics Teachers and parents fear elementary skills are being neglected

May 03, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF Electronic news editor Mike Himowitz contributed to this article.

In the rush to make gains on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, many of the state's elementary schools have fallen prey to a bedeviling paradox in the 8-year-old program: If schools teach too much to the %J high-level test, they often neglect to ground students in the basic skills -- particularly reading.

At Timonium Elementary School, improved performance on the annual tests has come from changing instruction to meet the exams' demands -- while sticking with the basics.

"You can't change everything and forget about giving children a strong background in the basics," Timonium Principal Kathy Volk says of the exams, which begin tomorrow in all state elementaries. "The mistake you have to avoid is teaching children only the thinking skills without giving them basic skills."

The MSPAP tests go far beyond the basics in an effort to measure how well children apply these skills in problem-solving. The tests were meant to drive classroom instruction to a higher level. But many schools are finding that, if they make these changes, too many students fail to learn sufficient basic skills -- such as the phonics skills to decode unfamiliar words.

For some, the problem is analogous to pushing students to run before they've mastered walking. "At too many schools, you're asking the children to do the complex thinking before they've had a chance to master the basics," complains Liz Crosby, a state PTA vice president and fourth-grade teacher on leave from Harford County schools.

As Maryland's fifth-graders begin a week of MSPAP exams tomorrow -- with third- and eighth-graders to follow next week -- many teachers and principals hope they have struck a balance between teaching children basic skills and pushing them to the higher-level applications of those skills as required by MSPAP.

It's a balance that few schools have found. Fewer than 10 percent of all Maryland elementary schools have shown statistically significant improvements in both of the past two years, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

Reading scores tell story

Nowhere is this MSPAP paradox more evident than in children's performance on the reading portion of the state exams.

On the third-grade reading tests, one in five of the state's 786 elementary schools improved their scores two years in a row from 1995 to 1997, according to an analysis by The Sun. Fewer than one in 10 posted higher scores three years in a row during the same period.

State education officials see hope in this. "I think schools are learning what works and what doesn't," says Gertrude Collier, branch chief of language development and early learning at the State Department of Education. "It's taking time, but I think that if we didn't have the MSPAP, it would be taking even more time."

But teachers and parents continue to raise serious questions about the effect the exams have on instruction, particularly in primary grades.

In the fall, the Maryland State Teachers Association put together a task force to look at the tests, focusing on issues such as whether they are appropriate for third-graders and the amount of instructional time they require.

"There are questions about whether third-graders can do this," says MSTA President Karl K. Pence. "Teachers agree that we need to have higher expectations for our children, but there's a concern that this may be too much. There's a feeling among some teachers that they're being pushed to get to the higher-level skills too quickly, before all of the kids have mastered the basics."

The MSPAP exams are known as performance-assessment tests. They ask children to work individually and in groups to apply basic skills in new ways. Instead of fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice questions, students must write their answers in sentences and paragraphs.

A lesson for teachers

State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick does little to sugarcoat the main purpose of the MSPAP -- to force teachers to change their instruction and focus more on higher-level thinking, writing and group work. Students must be able not just to read, write and compute, but to apply those skills in a variety of ways.

The results are used to judge schools rather than individual students -- and how schools perform can make or break educators' careers. Schools that show consistent improvement are given enough money by the state to buy state-of-the-art computer labs. Schools that decline are publicly labeled failures, and some -- including 79 in Baltimore and one in Anne Arundel County -- have been threatened with state takeover.

The importance that local school districts and the state attach to the MSPAP also serves as a deterrent to teachers and principals who disagree with portions of the test. While some privately question its value -- particularly at the third-grade level -- they're reluctant to speak out.

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