This week's release of the latest state test scores looms large for Maryland's public schools.
Based on the results to be made public Wednesday, principals may be promoted or demoted. Homebuyers and some companies may decide where to move. Schools may receive thousands of extra dollars for improving or face the humiliation of being added to the state's list of failing schools. Some long-failing schools may even be taken over or closed by the state next year.
The effects of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, extend even further: The tests have led to a fundamental shift in instruction in every elementary and middle school in the state -- a shift widely referred to in schools as the "Mizpap revolution." As Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, puts it: "The MSPAP has had a profound effect on everything that occurs in schools."
But those effects have prompted fierce criticism as well as praise.
Many parents charge that the exams cause schools to skip too lightly over basic skills instruction -- leaving children unable to do basic multiplication and division. They note that MSPAP test results simply underscore the results of nationally standardized exams: As a group, children from low-income families tend to score lower than those from better-off families.
Even the program's biggest booster, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, acknowledges that less than a third of Maryland's schools have successfully changed their instructional programs as the MSPAP intends.
First given to pupils in 1991, the MSPAP has become the centerpiece of the state's education reform effort, gaining national attention for both its longevity and for driving changes in instruction.
"Maryland is seen as a leader in this area, not only because of its assessment but because of its whole reform effort," says Steven Ferrara, a test development and research specialist with the American Institutes for Research in Washington, who helped design Maryland's testing program. "Very few states stick with a testing program for as long as Maryland."
Unlike traditional standardized exams, the MSPAP tests aim to measure more than just basic reading and math skills. For five mornings each May, all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders are called upon to apply their knowledge, often by working in groups and writing long essays as answers.
The tests are not designed to judge the abilities of individual students, but instead measure the effectiveness of schools in six subjects -- math, reading, writing, language, social studies and science.
Next month, the state will begin giving students the first high school-level exams as part a new testing program aimed at extending Maryland's school reform efforts.
By the time this year's seventh-graders reach the end of high school, they will be required to pass a rigorous set of tests in such subjects as algebra, U.S. history, English and biology to receive their diplomas.
The state's reform efforts have been strongly supported -- and influenced -- by Maryland's business community, which has argued since the 1980s that high school graduates have been ill-prepared for jobs.
The early results of the state tests -- which showed great disparities in achievement between pupils in Baltimore and those in suburban school systems -- also helped gather legislative and business support for the large infusion of extra state funding into the city schools.
"We want children who can think and solve problems at high levels, not just memorize and repeat," says June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of companies dedicated to school reform. "These standards apply to all students, not just a few at the top. That's important when unemployment is under 3 percent and all students are going to be needed to build our economy."
In classrooms, the MSPAP exams have forced teachers to create a new style of instruction.
No longer is it satisfactory for pupils to memorize multiplication tables. Now, pupils learn to complete more challenging tasks, often described as "real world" problems -- such as creating graphs on recycling and then writing persuasive articles about the importance of recycling at home.
Yet the tests and the changes they've brought to instruction have not always been well-received. Some parents and teachers say that third-graders aren't emotionally developed enough for five days of difficult exams, and many middle schools have great trouble motivating eighth-graders to take the MSPAP exams seriously when the pupils know that they are not held individually accountable for how they perform.