MSPAP testing should start later

Too soon: Third grade is too early to begin the rigorous training for state testing - it interferes with learning basic skills.

June 18, 2000|By Christopher Doherty

THE BALTIMORE City public schools closed on Friday and the relative calm of the coming summer may provide a good opportunity for Maryland educators to take a fresh look at an important element of their work, the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

After nearly 10 years on our educational landscape, the level of significance - especially in the eyes of the all-important principals and teachers - of the MSPAP can scarcely be overstated. Although still often called just one measure among many, MSPAP's power over instructional decisions is clearly paramount. The MSPAP is the quintessential "high stakes test" for our state, for better or worse. With this extraordinary level of power, felt in every public school serving K-8 students in the state, comes tremendous responsibility.

School-based educators, as well as district and state education officials, acknowledge that MSPAP's influence over instruction is certainly not limited to either the third, fifth or eighth grades, the grades tested by MSPAP, or to several days in May, the time of year the test is administered.

Indeed, the primary goals of this test are two-fold: to improve classroom instruction and to measure student (and school) achievement. Leaving aside for the moment whether this dual goal of a single test is either overly ambitious or contains an inherent conflict, it can be concluded that classroom instruction has changed because of this test. Whether these changes constitute improvement remains an open question.

It is a well-known fact that schools prepare for the MSPAP long before May each year. Again, MSPAP advocates embrace this preparation as proof of the test's effectiveness, since making instructional changes is an explicit goal of the test, as noted above

There are at least two major, and related, problems with continuing to so strongly support, whether directly or indirectly, such widespread and long-term explicit MSPAP preparation.

First, and most obvious, is the instructional time spent, if not wasted, on narrowly preparing children for the dozen or so content-void, performance tasks they likely will be faced with on the MSPAP.

The chief anxiety teachers feel about the MSPAP stems from the sense that they do not really know how to prepare students for the test, other than to stop their own instruction and practice the performance tasks, drill students on vocabulary common in the MSPAP and/or have students practice grading their own work using the MSPAP scoring matrix.

Second, with no limits being placed on the extent to which schools can unabashedly prepare their children for the MSPAP, it is "never too early" to start in with presenting the youngest of our elementary school students with "full-blown" performance tasks, replete with the MSPAP hallmarks of brainstorming, peer review, collaborative grouping and more, all in the name of "familiarizing" the children with the impending MSPAP.

As the MSPAP is not a knowledge-based exam (almost all, if not all, the content needed for a given MSPAP test is provided to the student in the test materials), the classroom teacher during all of these MSPAP preparation sessions assumes the role of the "guide on the side." The teacher, the primary educator for so many students from educationally impoverished backgrounds, becomes a facilitator of student activity, often to the point of not correcting incorrect student contributions or of valuing all student responses equally, regardless of a given response's being correct, incorrect, or somewhere in between.

The undeniable outcome of the situation outlined here is that precious classroom time in kindergarten, first and second grade is being spent on MSPAP-prep, an exam not focused on knowledge or skills, but on the application of knowledge and skills. Is it not the main goal of teachers in these early primary years to teach those fundamental skills and basic knowledge? When an ever-increasing amount of time is spent explicitly preparing for the process-heavy, content-light third-grade MSPAP, is it any wonder that the mastery of basic skills continues to suffer, even despite this year's refreshing gains?

Indeed, in Baltimore City where achievement levels are the lowest in the state, Quarterly Assessments are mandated specifically to improve the city's performance on the MSPAP. This type of well-intended measure has led to a multiplication of test prep in that Baltimore teachers feel they must prepare for the tests and prepare for the quarterly assessments (as well as actually administer all of them, too).

From the outside at least, one can make out the distinct outlines of a very slippery slope. Can we realistically expect individual teachers to resist the consistent top-down pressure to prep their kids for the MSPAP at the expense of all else?

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