Scores suggest format easier in Lone Star State

The Education Beat

Exams: The Texas assessment test is multiple choice, while the Maryland version asks pupils to answer in short essays.

February 06, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TAKE A LOOK AT THE two test items to the right.

One is a reading exercise in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), given in the third grade in 1996. The other is a third-grade item from the 1999 Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), the Lone Star State's testing program.

MSPAP and TAAS are high-stakes tests. Both make principals and teachers pull out their hair because scores over time determine whether a school is rewarded or put on a list of failures and taken over by the state, as three were in Baltimore last week.

Principals' careers are made or broken by the accumulated knowledge in Texas of the meaning of "performance," or the accumulated quality in Maryland of short essays on traveling in the desert.

The tests are similar in their use and effect, but they're not alike in format. They are apples and oranges -- or, rather, camels and elephants.

That difference raises the questions of which test is more sophisticated, which tells us more about pupils' abilities, which is more difficult.

Based on passing percentages, one could conclude that Maryland's test answers those questions. About 40 percent of Maryland third-graders pass MSPAP, while 75 percent to 80 percent of Texas third-graders pass TAAS. (Both states set 70 percent as the passing mark.)

The tests, launched in the early 1990s, are accurately labeled. MSPAP judges performance. Students are tested on how well they carry out tasks. Sometimes they work on a task in small groups before they repair to their desks to write individual responses.

TAAS is a test of comprehension. A multiple-choicetest of reading can't do much more than present a passage and ask children questions to determine if they've understood.

TAAS makes it easy. Words that require definition -- words like "performance" in the example -- are underlined in the text so children can go back to read them in context.

Both states help by illustrating test items -- Texas, in this example, with a drawing of Bobby admiring circus elephants, Maryland with a panel of 12 drawings of scenes from the story.

Gary Heath, a testing expert in the Maryland Department of Education, says TAAS is much closer to the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS), a national standardized test required in the even-numbered grades in Maryland, than it is to MSPAP.

Doing well on multiple-choice tests requires a different set of skills. Test-takers have to know how to use logic to eliminate unlikely answers. A list of tips (in English and Spanish) for acing TAAS is taped to the desk of every third-grader at Alta Vista Elementary School in El Paso.

MSPAP is as much a test of writing as it is of reading. A child might be a good reader, but if she can't write a sensible, legible short essay about traveling in the desert, she is sunk.

From the beginning, says Gertrude Collier, Maryland branch chief for language development and early learning, MSPAP has sought to measure more than simple comprehension. "It's designed to construct, extend and examine meaning," she says.

The secret to MSPAP success is to be able to write a short, original essay that demonstrates understanding of the passage and how to put ideas together in logical order, whether reading for pleasure, for information or to follow directions. That's what's going on in Maryland as schools practice for MSPAP in the spring.

Scoring MSPAP is more elaborate than scoring the Texas test. TAAS answer sheets are scanned by computers. In Maryland, squads of teachers pore over 190,000 test booklets for a couple of weeks each summer, looking for correct -- and creative -- responses.

What neither Maryland nor Texas can do, though -- and what no test can do except those conducted in the course of instruction by classroom teachers -- is measure the ability of children to read orally.

This is the original definition of reading -- the child standing at his desk, reading aloud from a McGuffey's primer or intoning, "See Spot run."

Oral reading ability is one of many things we don't know on a mass scale about the first "R."


Third-graders taking exams for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program are given 20 minutes to read "Crossing the Sahara," an example of "reading to be informed." About half of the passage is excerpted below. MSPAP questions follow.

Geoffrey Moorhouse set out to cross the Sahara in November 1972, a journey of 5,700 kms. With an Arab guide, he started from the west coast. They stopped at wells along the way. He bought new camels at Tidjikja. He wanted to get across the desert before the summer

They got lost and ran out of water. When they found some, Moorhouse drank 23 pints. Moorhouse hired a new guide, a Tuareg, to take him across the Ahaggar Mountains. It was almost summer so they walked at night when it was cooler.

The camels were dying. Moorhouse, too ill to go on, stopped in Algeria. He had traveled 3,200 kms in three months.


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