Saying their concerns about Maryland's school testing program aren't being heard, some of the state's teachers have turned to the General Assembly to try to make changes.
A ranking legislator has introduced a bill that would require an independent study of the 10-year-old program -- a system of school accountability hailed as tops in the country by a national education group, but the subject of continuing skepticism among some legislators, parents and teachers in Maryland.
"We have become too test-driven," Tom McDade, a fifth-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Baltimore County, told lawmakers last week. "You need to hear the bad as well as the good from the grass roots."
The legislation being considered would set up a 15-member commission to study the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the exams given each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in the state's public schools.
Teachers would make up seven of the 15 members, and the commission would do a statewide survey of teachers seeking their opinions about the exams, using the results to make recommendations for changes to the Assembly and governor.
"This bill is not about doing away with the MSPAP," said the bill's sponsor, Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat and House speaker pro tem. He said, however, that there may be validity to criticism he's heard from teachers, including that classes have become too test-oriented and that the exams are causing some teachers to burn out.
But at a hearing last week before the House Ways and Means Committee, a deputy state schools superintendent and principals from across Maryland opposed creating such a commission.
Education officials pointed to more than 200 studies of the testing program since its inception, and they said teachers' opinions are regularly sought to make improvements.
"I think this test has already been inspected, dissected, collected and respected by groups around the country," said Rocco Ferretti, principal of Bodkin Elementary School in Anne Arundel County.
Dewberry's bill is the most moderate of several that have been introduced in past years to abolish or significantly modify the program. Previous proposals have been killed by House committees, and the chairwoman of Ways and Means doesn't give Dewberry's bill much chance for success this time.
"I don't know how this survey will do anything to help us," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We don't want a recommendation on record that says do away with MSPAP."
First given to pupils in 1991, the MSPAP has become the centerpiece of Maryland's education efforts, gaining national attention for its longevity and for its role in directing changes in instruction.
Unlike traditional, standardized multiple-choice exams, the MSPAP tests aim to measure more than basic reading and math skills. For five mornings each May, pupils are called upon to apply their knowledge, often by working in groups and writing long essays.
The tests are not designed to judge the abilities of individual pupils but to grade the effectiveness of schools' instruction in six subjects -- math, reading, writing, language, social studies and science. The goal is for 70 percent of pupils to score "satisfactory" on the exams, but the state's 24 school systems remain far below that target.
The nature of the MSPAP exams has prompted criticism, most recently in a study commissioned by the Abell Foundation. That scathing report charged that the tests are full of mistakes and are an invalid measure of children's skills and knowledge -- points disputed by state officials.
"No one disagrees with accountability for schools, but we want a test that does a better job of measuring how students are doing," said Del. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel Republican and longtime critic of the exams.
In a poll of Marylanders conducted for The Sun earlier this year, only a quarter of those surveyed said they believe education has improved as a result of the program. Of adults with children at home, almost half said they don't believe the tests have made any difference in leading to better-quality education.
"Valuable curriculum is sacrificed in an effort to master test format," said JoAnn Hayden, who retired last year after 31 years teaching elementary school in Baltimore County. "MSPAP scores are affecting teacher morale."
In contrast, a report by the respected journal Education Week recently rated Maryland first in the nation for standards and accountability. And a portion of the Abell Foundation's report gave high marks to the more technical portion of the exams.
"Maryland is respected for having high standards, and other states look at us as a model," said Del. Carolyn J. B. Howard, a Prince George's Democrat. "All of the criticism is coming from within. This is quite puzzling to me."
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is appointing what she describes as a "blue-ribbon" panel of educators from around the country to do a thorough review of Maryland's 10 years of education reform.
State officials also say teachers' opinions are regularly incorporated into the exams -- from the 200 teachers who write the questions to the 700 teachers who grade pupils' answers each summer. There is also space for teachers to write comments after administering the exams each spring.
Still, at last week's hearing, many of the parents and teachers who testified said they believe their opinions need more of a chance to be heard by a group other than the State Department of Education.
"We believe the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program can be improved and believe our suggestions have fallen on deaf ears," said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.