Basic skills to be tested

State orders schools to report individual scores to parents

July 29, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In a move toward greater accountability, the state school board ordered all Maryland second-, fourth- and sixth-graders yesterday to take an annual national test of basic skills.

The decision marks the state's first effort to ensure that all pupils receive individual standardized test scores. State officials plan to develop a new testing report card that would inform parents of their children's marks on the national test and scores from other tests.

Maryland's current testing program for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders -- known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) -- is designed to give scores for schools, but not for individual pupils, on standards set by the state.

"This is the best way we know for schools to be able to say to parents of children in grades two, four and six, `This is how your child has done as an individual instead of [as part of an entire school] on the MSPAP,' " said state board member Morris C. Jones. "And these scores will be given across the state, not just in selected areas."

Beginning in the spring, all second-, fourth- and sixth-graders will take the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS), a commonly used exam that tells pupils how they perform compared to national norms in math, reading and language arts. On the CTBS, pupils scoring at the 50th percentile are considered to perform at the national average.

The CTBS differs from the state's own testing program by measuring pupils' basic skills through multiple-choice questions. The MSPAP tests ask pupils to apply those skills to solve problems, often working in small groups and writing essay answers. The CTBS is widely considered a more precise measure of basic skills than MSPAP.

"We feel that there is no one measure that should truly represent a child in his or her entirety," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We're very impressed with what the MSPAP can provide, and we think the CTBS can improve on that."

The State Board of Education's action will provide a new way to compare all schools and school systems in Maryland to each other and -- perhaps more important -- to others across the country. In that sense, it is a return to the 1970s, when all Maryland school systems gave another nationally normed exam, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

"With the MSPAP, there is no national comparison, because the MSPAP was designed to be given just in Maryland," said Samuel C. Stringfield, a research scientist and testing expert with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools and a city school board member. "This will allow students to be held up to a national level to see how they're doing."

Until this year, the state paid for school systems to give the CTBS only to a random sample of pupils in grades two, four and six every other year. But 18 of the state's 24 school systems already are meeting the state's new requirement for administering the tests, said Mark Moody, an assistant state superintendent.

The school systems that will be most affected by the requirement -- those that have not been giving the tests to all pupils and on the state's required schedule -- are Baltimore City and Baltimore, Calvert, Charles, Frederick and Montgomery counties, Moody said.

Mandating the CTBS responds to persistent criticism from some parents that they don't receive individual results from Maryland's exams. In addition, some have questioned whether preparing pupils for the MSPAP harms instruction in basic reading and math skills -- a charge repeatedly denied by state educators, who say that pupils must master basic skills in order to apply them.

A comparison of the two exams shows that the CTBS covers about 50 percent of Maryland's learning objectives, Moody said. "We don't want the tests to completely overlap, because then you would question why you would give both tests," Moody said.

Before the board's vote, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education had questioned whether the state should be directing all school systems to give the basic skills tests.

The objections had more to do with a lack of communication from the state board than with testing students, said Beatrice B. Gordon, the group's president.

"How is this test going to be given? How are the results going to be reported?" Gordon said. "Those are the kind of questions that haven't been answered."

The state board's decision follows the General Assembly's approval of $1.2 million this spring to pay for more testing. The money will be distributed to local school systems at a rate of about $6 per pupil.

"For those systems that were already doing it, now we will be paying the systems the cost," Grasmick said. "Those systems will actually make a little bit of money."

In other business during yesterday's meeting, the state board unanimously re-elected 91-year-old Walter Sondheim to a second one-year term as board president. J. Edward Andrews Jr., a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and former Montgomery County schools superintendent, was re-elected vice president.

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