Parents fear MSPAP is skewing curriculum at Sunset Elementary

Principal defends tests, says her job is to find a way to improve scores

January 13, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Some Sunset Elementary School parents are worried that their children spend too much time preparing for statewide tests and not enough time learning basic skills.

"Last year, when I asked my daughter what she did at school today, it seems that all she ever says is, `We worked on taking the' " Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, said Robert Marvel, whose daughter, Miranda, is a fourth-grader at the Pasadena elementary school.

"It seems like they're brainwashing the kids toward this test," Marvel said. "I talk to teachers, too, and they say, `I wish we could teach this way, but we've got to teach it this way.' "

Marvel spoke at a meeting at the school Tuesday, when the principal and teachers met with about 25 parents to discuss the school's performance on MSPAP and other tests.

The MSPAP is given each May to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders to measure proficiency in applying knowledge to six subject areas -- reading, writing, language usage, mathematics, science and social studies.

The test asks pupils to show that they understand reading selections, develop written responses, solve multi-step math problems and perform science investigations.

Sunset, which in 1993 earned an overall satisfactory performance rate of 41.6 percent, posted the same score for 1999. Over the past three years, the school's overall score has dropped by 14.3 points.

"The scores are down, and what I have to be concerned about is what we need to do now," said Principal Joyce Fink, who took over at Sunset in September from Shady Side Elementary.

"I came in and said, `What's happening and why does it look this way?' We're looking at programs, teaching strategies and trying to determine what we need to do differently," Fink said.

Countywide, MSPAP scores have been essentially flat since 1996, hovering between 46 percent and 48 percent of pupils performing satisfactorily. To meet state performance standards, 70 percent must score at the satisfactory level.

Sunset staff said that third-grade math scores -- which dropped from 57.1 percent to 22.7 percent satisfactory since 1997 -- are a particular concern.

Fink also pointed to substantial declines in third-grade reading and writing scores during the past three years. Reading fell from 57 percent to 39.8 percent of pupils scoring satisfactorily, and writing dropped from 49 percent to 38 percent.

Dorothy Kouroupis, another parent of a child at Sunset Elementary, criticized what she sees as a growing emphasis on mastering MSPAP.

"It's reshaping what's happening within the curriculum guidelines in the whole state of Maryland," she said. "There's a lot of pressure on the children and the administration in reference to MSPAP."

School staff and other parents responded that one of the goals of MSPAP is to provide data to improve instruction.

"MSPAP really does assess students' thinking and their writing," Fink said. "It has made a difference in instructional programs and the way kids learn. It has made a positive impact."

In an effort to improve Sunset's scores, Fink said, school staff are focusing on developing pupils' writing skills. She said teachers have adopted some instructional techniques used at Bodkin Elementary, which was the top ranking elementary in the state, with an 82.5 percent satisfactory performance rate.

Sunset staff also talked to parents about the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. The nationwide test is given yearly to second-, fourth- and sixth-graders. It has a multiple choice format and tests basic skills in several subjects.

"In relation to the national average, our children are in that range, and at the high end of it," said Sunset reading specialist Judy McCorkill.

In contrast to MSPAP, which measures school improvement, the comprehensive test measures individual student performance.

"With CTBS, [pupils] pick an answer and no one says how did you know that's the right answer," said Fink, distinguishing between the two tests.

Kouroupis also offered a comparison.

"When I try to describe the differences, I say, `In CTBS, 2 plus 2 equals 4, and in MSPAP it's `How do you feel about 2 plus 2 equals 4?' "

"It's a very subjective test," Kouroupis said of MSPAP.

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