A feather in MSPAP's cap

Report: Maryland's often-criticized standards program scores big in national rankings.

January 15, 2001

MSPAP naysayers got another reason to stop their yammering last week, when the 2001 Education Week "Quality Counts" report rated Maryland first in the nation for standards and accountability.

The high marks carry weight because the magazine's list has become a respected mainstay -- sort of like college rankings. And the criteria used are solid: whether a state uses tests to align schools with state standards; whether the state participates in national testing programs; whether a state uses tests that include not only multiple-choice questions, but also short-answer and extended-response questions; and whether a state has a sufficient system of rewards and sanctions for school performance.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests and the broader accountability program that accompanies them are a model for other states.

They have been around for a decade -- a lot longer than most state programs, which tend to come and go like nice weather. And progress on the tests has come in a steady upward trend.

The "Quality Counts" report bolsters the belief that Maryland is on the right track with its accountability program. It shows proves that abandoning MSPAP, as has been suggested by some critics, would be ridiculous.

Instead, the state should continue to refine the tests and push the program forward.

The "Quality Counts" report points to some problems with state assessments that deserve attention. In general, the report suggests striving for a better balance among assessment tests, standards and state support for both.

In Maryland, an obvious need for improvement exists on that front. There is probably too much focus on the MSPAP tests themselves, and not enough on state programs -- and state money --

designed to help struggling schools.

It's hard to tell in some schools on the state's watch list of low performers what the state is doing to try to boost performance. Do these schools really have the money they need? Are the teachers getting the kind of support and training they need?

Even in the three Baltimore schools turned over to private management this year because of unimproved MSPAP scores, the state's role before the takeovers is hard to discern. That shouldn't be the case.

Some local criticisms of the MSPAP tests deserve inquiry on the state's part, too.

Specifically, charges that the test is full of erroneous information and that some wrong answers are being marked "right" should be investigated.

But overall, the arguments leveled by MSPAP's critics are wrongheaded, and focused on returning Maryland to the days when no standards existed, when no accountability was in place.

The better course for state officials to follow is one of targeted reforms -- as the "Quality Counts" report suggests -- rather than radical, irresponsible revision.

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