More tests, more state strings


May 28, 2000|By Mike Burns

ACCORDING to the unofficial school calendar, summer has already arrived.

That is, the all-important state/national tests have already been administered, allowing for the traditional slide into vacation. Final exams and project reports in June seem to count for less these days, in the unrelenting pedagogical fixation with MSPAP, CTBS, SAT, Gates-MacGinitie, and their ilk.

Advanced notice is regularly given parents of upcoming tests, with the gratuitous admonition that youngsters get a good night's sleep, eat breakfast and don't play hooky those days.

For MSPAP, at least, parents are sternly advised that a child's absence will adversely affect the school's performance results. No doctor appointments and no excursions to Disneyland. A zero will be recorded for the child, not an absence. While parents should be sensitive to the importance of these assessment tests, it's still an odd way to judge a student or a class.

Yet we are ever reminded of the arbitrary flexibility of state school authorities, particularly state education superintendent Nancy Grasmick.

You may have read recently how the MSPAP maven assured parents at Randallstown Elementary that she would adjust the scores of their absent third-graders, who were held out of classes in protest over a school renovation plan.

Naturally, the aggregated scores would be rock-bottom and show nothing of the children's abilities. But wouldn't the same thing be true for other classes in other schools around the state, if students were absent on a test day? Isn't it sensible to exclude those absent pupils from the test score averages?

There's a nagging suspicion that the mounting number of statewide tests, and their interpretation, is another way the state education department is trying to take control of local schools.

In Baltimore City, for example, Dr. Grasmick's department asserted dominion over three elementary schools in February. Instruction is to be placed in the hands of a private contractor (under state control) for this next school year.

The primary justification for the takeover was the exceptionally poor reading scores of children on the MSPAP tests. They were shatteringly abysmal, regardless of how many kids were counted for showing up on test days.

And yet there were noticeable signs of improvement. This month, the city schools rejoiced in a significant increase in reading test scores. But the state takeover proceeds apace.

MSPAP forces classroom teachers to spend a lot of instruction time in preparing kids just for that test.

In other words, the state is effectively dictating more of what is taught in the classroom. It doesn't exactly tell the school systems what to teach, it doesn't insist that a certain text or curriculum be presented. But the hanging sword of MSPAP will force certain things to be taught, certain teaching methods to be used.

Marylanders have mostly accepted the statewide functional tests that have been needed for graduation for about 15 years. These four basic tests in the three R's and civics are not terribly difficult and kids have several years, and several tries, to finally pass.

Now the state board of education wants to impose a series of 10 "assessment" tests that will be needed for graduation. To implement this rigorous requirement in all school systems, the board sought $49 million in aptly named "intervention" money. When the governor declined to fund only 40 percent of the request, the state board backed off a bit last week. It still plans to require the tests in all schools, but won't require students to pass them for graduation until 2007.

The state already effectively dictates what new school buildings will be constructed, through the funding mechanism that pays about 60 percent of basic costs. The same is true of significant renovation work.

This year, the state even pressured changes in local salary scales by offering "matching" money to boost teacher pay. The effect is to alter collective bargaining agreements between local school boards and teacher unions. It also creates unfunded demands for equitable raises for other school system employees.

The direction is unmistakable. The state's control of local education decisions is unceasing.

Allegany County is one of the few school systems to stand up against this juggernaut. Although in dire need of funds, it recently rejected state aid because the state wanted to call the shots on how to restructure the county's schools.

Those who deplore the mismanagement of school construction by the Carroll school board may see some benefit in tighter state controls. But the reality is that political clout influences state school funding decisions, and Carroll doesn't have very much.

The major concern, however, should be about state takeover of the entire school curriculum, about what is taught and how it is taught and what is not to be taught. That is the direct result of ever growing state testing and graduation requirements.

Carroll schools have done well educating our children. Presumably, these kids would pass most general knowledge tests. But the lesson of MSPAP has been that more state tests, like more state money, come with a lot of strings attached.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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