Making sure MSPAP passes the test

January 12, 2001|By Nancy S. Grasmick

THIS WEEK, Education Week's "Quality Counts 2001" report rated Maryland's education standards and accountability the best in the nation.

In the past two years, groups such as the Fordham Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers and the Council for Basic Education also gave our standards positive ratings. A recent study of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), by test expert Ron Hambleton of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, also produced high marks for Maryland.

In the midst of these accolades, an investigation led by political scientist Bill Evers, of the Hoover Institute in Stanford, Calif., surprisingly panned MSPAP.

We were struck by the stark contrast of the Evers report with dozens of other studies completed over the past decade involving researchers, teachers, legislators and parents. In Maryland, we encourage such studies to ensure that our test is the very best it can be. Our children deserve nothing less.

Investigations such as the Evers and Hambleton studies are not made public because they discuss test questions that will be reused. The release of test questions could create costly interruptions to our accountability program. But we typically brief journalists, policy-makers and citizens on research studies upon request.

We routinely invite the best testing experts available to advise us on MSPAP, and will continue to do so. We view the Evers study in the context of 200 others conducted over 10 years. They strongly contradict Mr. Evers' conclusions and illustrate our vigorous quality-assurance work, which ensures that the test reflects the voices of experts and teachers.

Each year's MSPAP is developed, reviewed and scored by those closest to students -- the teachers. More than 100 Maryland educators approve test questions before they are used, and 800 Maryland teachers score the tests each summer.

MSPAP, like all reputable large-scale assessments, meets American Psychological Association standards. We consult national experts when we adjust procedures to ensure we meet those rigorous standards.

Consequently, dozens of analyses find MSPAP exceeding standards in every way. The Hambleton review commends Maryland for the way we set standards, review for bias, check for reliability and score the test.

Last month, after a thorough, four-month study, the U.S. Department of Education approved MSPAP as a measure of Maryland's progress in federal programs.

Recent investigations show that instruction is improving and that MSPAP tests have content similar to content expected in other rigorous tests. MSPAP scores closely parallel scores on tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills and the SAT.

Clearly, other researchers do not agree with Mr. Evers' review. Several nationally known experts we asked to examine Mr. Evers' study pointed out faulty reasoning and numerous errors.

For example, the Evers team mistook examples of model wrong answers for model exemplary answers. (Contrary to Mr. Evers claims, a student answer portraying Mahatma Gandhi as a woman was a model wrong answer receiving a "zero" score.) Researchers more typically seek clarification and details from our staff to avoid such errors.

We must not be distracted by a single flawed study nor should we relax our respected quality improvement program. This winter, the University of Maryland, College Park will study MSPAP test design, content and the effects on teaching. It will report by early spring.

At the same time, I am engaging national experts and those involved in Maryland education in a yearlong study of our accountability system, including MSPAP. Numerous other scheduled investigations will confirm test validity, reliability and other testing requisites.

The Sun for years has told stories similar to those recounted in many research studies telling us that schools are focusing on reading, writing and mathematics and that they are working harder to improve. Good MSPAP scores increasingly represent better teaching and better leadership.

We are making progress because we continue to demand the highest quality tests and teaching for our children. Their future depends on it.

Nancy S. Grasmick is the superintendent of Maryland schools.

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