Principals support state's annual tests, but raise concerns

Questions include lack of staff, preparation time, no individual pupil results

May 27, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's principals overwhelmingly believe that the state's annual tests have improved classroom instruction, but many question whether the results show how schools are actually doing, according to a survey released yesterday.

The vast majority of elementary and middle school principals also think that the exams -- known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) -- have improved pupils' abilities to solve real-world problems while requiring them to master basic skills in reading and math.

"The survey results are very encouraging about school reform, public accountability and the direction of Maryland," said Ronald Hinckley, an analyst with R/S/M Inc. of Sterling, Va., which conducted the survey for the Maryland State Department of Education. "But one thing that the principals are saying is, `We're not sure that the MSPAP results reflect all of the improvements we're seeing, but we know improvements have occurred.' "

Begun in 1991 as the centerpiece of the state's education reform program, the exams call on pupils to work in groups and perform experiments to show not only what they know but how well they can apply their knowledge. The results of the writing-intensive tests -- given each spring to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders -- are used to judge Maryland's schools and teachers rather than the skills of individual students.

Preliminary results of the survey -- which received responses from 763 of 1,047 elementary and middle school principals -- were presented to the state school board yesterday. The final report should be completed next month.

While the principals believe that the MSPAP has helped them focus their strategies and given them more leverage to change instruction, many echoed the testing concerns raised in a survey last year by the Maryland State Teachers Association, including worries that schools don't have enough staff and time to prepare for and give the tests each spring.

Some principals also are concerned that pupils don't receive individual results from the exams, and that third-graders might not be old enough for five rigorous days of testing, Hinckley said.

"On the challenges and concerns raised by the principals, we couldn't agree more," said Patricia Foerster, vice president of MSTA and chairwoman of the group's MSPAP task force.

Foerster said principals and teachers agree that the performance assessment program has helped instruction, but noted that problems arise "because there is so much miscommunication."

State educators are taking steps in response to both surveys, said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach.

Grasmick said the state is developing a report card for next winter that will let parents know their children's individual results on the MSPAP and other tests.

A new video on MSPAP for teachers is being filmed to try to improve communication about the tests, Grasmick said. "We feel that where there isn't strong principal leadership, that's where we see teacher confusion," she said.

Although the state has developmental psychologists review the third-grade exams, it is looking to do more research on appropriate testing for young children, Peiffer said.

In other business yesterday, the state board approved the improvement plans for five low-performing schools in Prince George's County and one each in Anne Arundel and Somerset counties. All of the schools have been identified as targets for possible state takeover unless they improve.

The board also announced it is considering a change to state regulations calling for schools to promote a climate in which students are safe and free of harassment regardless of gender, religion, race, socioeconomic status, age, disability and sexual orientation.

The sexual orientation part of the regulations is expected to ignite controversy when the board votes at its August meeting.

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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