MSPAP needs impartial study

Education: An Abell Foundation report raised questions about the consequences of school reform in Maryland.

September 03, 2000|By Phil Greenfield

JUST OVER A decade into Maryland's experiment with educational reform on the grand scale, the other shoe has finally dropped.

A $300,000 study of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program paid for by Baltimore's Abell Foundation casts a giant shadow of doubt on the reformist agenda currently dictating educational practices across our state.

The professors engaged by the foundation to evaluate MSPAP twitted the program for its weak academic content and inexpert scoring procedures, concluding that students utterly bereft of content knowledge routinely pass the tests merely by concocting their essays in the approved format. The biology professor who checked the science tests, for example, expressed shock and chagrin over the quality of responses that were awarded full credit.

The bureaucracy's response? The Abell report represented an "extremely conservative point of view" propounded by those who would limit education to "memorization and regurgitation," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told The Sun. Mark Moody, the state's testing chief, likened the critical report to "creationists reviewing the theory of evolution."

Baloney! The Abell Foundation isn't saying anything that teachers across Maryland haven't been tearing their hair out over for more than a decade.

Last fall, our state's Higher Education Commission informed us that in Anne Arundel County, where I teach, 38 percent of our 1998 graduates attending Maryland colleges and universities required remediation in mathematics after leaving high school.

Twenty-six percent had to be placed in remedial reading classes when they got to college, while one in five required instruction in basic English. (I'm not biting the hand that feeds me; Anne Arundel is not unique in any of this.)

So the proposition that academic skills are taking a shellacking from our fixation with MSPAP doesn't shock me, and I'll bet it doesn't surprise the many thousands of Maryland parents who are shelling out big bucks for tuition and books in courses that won't count a whit toward graduation.

The not-so-subtle hint that MSPAP's critics are all part of some sinister right-wing conspiracy is absurd. Since when does a university professorship automatically confer a conservative bias? Such folks tend to be the last unregenerate liberals left on the planet, for heaven's sake! And Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, is no knee-jerk conservative -- he supported MSPAP in its formative stages.

So while the criticisms were substantive, the only response our bureaucrats could come up with was to hurl insults at their critics.

But these tantrums reveal an important truth: Surely our educational leaders are far too enmeshed ideologically in their MSPAP handiwork to react responsibly to objective criticism of the program. It is for this reason that the superintendent's presumption that she is the appropriate party to impanel a committee to respond to the Abell Foundation's charges is untenable.

We do need a commission to study how MSPAP is doing, and where educational reform in Maryland is headed. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening needs to appoint its members, not Grasmick.

Glendening's tribunal should consist of scrupulously fair Marylanders who have no entangling professional or personal ties to the educational hierarchy. Its members should be empowered to get to the bottom of any and all aspects of MSPAP-related issues. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, county superintendents and employers should all be pressed for their assessments in an open and honest forum that will blow the lid off the secrecy that hangs over this reform package like a malevolent mist.

Any report issued by the Governor's Commission on Educational Reform must contain responses to the following questions:

Is MSPAP's elementary and middle school curriculum as content-poor as its critics charge, or are youngsters getting the skills and hard knowledge they're going to need to be successful in high school and beyond?

If kids are being provided with the skills necessary for academic success, why are so many of them requiring remediation when they get to college? Where are things going wrong?

Is the lack of student accountability in MSPAP testing a disastrous miscalculation, as critics charge, or do the youngsters in grades three, five, and eight take the tests seriously enough to give evaluators an accurate picture of how well children are being taught? And if students do take the tests seriously even though they can fail them with impunity, what explains the execrably low eighth-grade scores that flat-lined in the early 1990s?

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