Union seeks MSPAP changes State teachers' group says tests are too long, schools are penalized

630 polled in 24 districts

November 10, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

The state's largest teachers' union is recommending changes in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, including cutting testing time from five days to three, decreasing the effect of transient students on test scores and no longer penalizing schools for absentees.

The recommendations grew out of the Maryland State Teachers Association's second survey of teacher attitudes toward the tests that are given each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders across the state.

Based on a random sample of 630 teachers from all 24 districts, more than two-thirds said they support the goals of the MSPAP test, and that MSPAP is an important tool in improving student achievement. More than 70 percent said the test was an important way to measure school performance.

On the other hand, more than three-quarters said the five-day testing period was too long, while a majority said that more traditional tests -- such as standardized, multiple-choice tests -- are more useful than MSPAP. More than 90 percent of the teachers responding believed it was unfair to judge a school's performance solely on MSPAP.

"A year ago, MSTA polled its members about MSPAP. There was strong support but serious concerns," said Karl Pence, MSTA president, who presented the second survey's results at a press conference in Annapolis yesterday.

This year, he added, there is support for MSPAP's goals, but teachers "still do have serious concerns."

Initiated in 1991 as part of the state's education reform program, the MSPAP test asks students to perform experiments and work in groups to gauge not only what they know but also how well they can apply their knowledge. The results are used to judge how well schools and individual teachers are doing their jobs, not to assess individual students' skills.

The responses of Baltimore City teachers, who were not included in last year's survey, "were very much the same as outside the city," Pence said.

Overall, the most negative responses to MSPAP came from Anne Arundel County teachers, with almost one-fourth of that group saying the test was not at all important in setting high standards and 22 percent downplaying its importance in providing data for improving schools.

Susie C. Jablinske, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said these findings seemed consistent with the feelings of her membership. "We have concerns about the implementation of MSPAP and the impact the implementation has on the kind of instruction we want to give."

She noted the length of the tests as a particular concern. "Third- graders find it very, very difficult to deal with five days" of testing.

A union task force has been working since January to produce its response to the concerns expressed in the survey.

"The MSTA has done a really good job," said Ronald Peiffer, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, which developed and oversees MSPAP. "The recommendations match a lot of the concerns we are hearing from other groups."

Among the MSTA's other recommendations:

Assess and evaluate the tests to be sure they are appropriate for the age-level they are testing. "So much of the reading is at a very, very rigorous level," said Patricia Foerster, MSTA vice president and chair of the MSPAP task force. The task force wants the reading level adjusted so that a student is able to read and understand the questions well enough to perform required tasks.

Provide schools with enough people to administer and monitor the tests without taking teachers away from students who are not being tested.

Try to decrease the effect of transient students on a school's score. Students who move frequently may be taught in several schools, but will be tested only in the one they are attending in May.

Eliminate absent students' test booklets from a school's score, so that schools are not penalized for absentees.

Currently, students who are absent for most of the test receive a zero. However, a student who is absent only one day can be given credit, based on his scores on other parts of the test, said Peiffer.

This issue is a "two-edged sword" because if schools are not held accountable for absentees, there may be a tendency in some districts to discourage students who might not do well on the tests from coming to school, he said.

Peiffer also said he did not think the recommendation to cut testing time from five days to three was realistic because "nine hours of testing is how much time it takes to get enough information about what a child knows." He did suggest that perhaps the five days could be spread over two weeks, if that was considered less disruptive.

One other concern -- that it takes too long for schools and teachers to get tests results -- may soon be alleviated, Peiffer said.

Under the system, the state department sends results to individual districts in October before publicly releasing them in early December. But many of the teachers surveyed said they did not get their schools' results until as late as January.

This year, however, in December, the education department will begin posting school-by-school results on its Internet web site, and will include results from all previous years, so that teachers, parents and others can assess not only a school's current performance, but also its history.

The recommendation also encourages individual districts to distribute school results as soon as they are available.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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