Keeping MSPAP from becoming a casualty

School threat: State educators were right to postpone test so rumors didn't compromise results.

May 07, 1999

THE STATE Department of Education was right to delay testing third- and eighth-graders for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program next Monday in the face of a widespread rumor of school violence.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will come in for criticism from some who feel the schools shouldn't surrender to a sick, unsubstantiated threat. But the annual MSPAP exam could have been severely compromised.

Absenteeism is measured against performance, so a school or an entire system would have been hurt if parents kept children at home for fear of the threat. Students also might have been distracted. Superintendents in Anne Arundel and Howard counties were among the first to notify parents about the May 10 threat, which circulated through conversation and the Internet.

In delaying the tests, state education officials were attempting to deal with the possible reactions, not directly with the rumor itself. They do not expect a repeat of what befell Littleton, Colo., on April 20. But skewed exam results would defeat a lot of the work that has gone into MSPAP, which is used to track long-term progress. Testing for third- and eighth grades will begin Tuesday and conclude May 17. Fifth-graders wrap up their week of MSPAP exams today.

The 24-hour MSPAP postponement isn't the only reaction to the heightened anxiety. Some school systems were considering moving Advanced Placement exams, also scheduled Monday, away from school buildings to nearby sites. Harford County is placing volunteer monitors at the entrance of schools throughout each school day.

Administrators have a difficult balance to strike. Since the Colorado killings and the copycat threats here and elsewhere, they must be wary of any and all threats. But they must be wary, too, of overreaction.

They must be more intolerant of real acts of violence and intimidation by students against peers and teachers, not merely attuned to the paper and electronic threats. School officials should continue to work with law enforcement authorities and other experts to separate scuttlebutt from danger.

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