Proposal for more testing draws criticism

Parents, teachers say too much time is given to MSPAP preparation

October 03, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The prospect that Maryland could expand its school testing program to more grades is drawing criticism from parents and teachers, who contend that instruction already is too focused on preparing for exams.

"Teachers are up to their eyeballs in testing," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "There needs to be a concerted effort to get to the point where we're not just adding more and more testing."

The recommendation this week for Maryland to add a new batch of testing for grades four, six and seven was one of many suggestions from Achieve Inc., a national nonprofit group that supports standards-based education.

The group -- which was commissioned by the state to study its reform efforts -- is expected to influence the work of a task force appointed by the state superintendent to draw up a 10-year blueprint for public education in Maryland.

The state-appointed panel and Achieve both recommended this week that Maryland develop its first-ever statewide curriculum -- a proposal supported by local superintendents as well as by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

To improve Maryland's testing program, Achieve also called on the state to make more of its test questions public and to give parents better information on their children's individual scores.

Even the most vocal critics of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program applauded those recommendations yesterday, because they've spent years trying to see actual exams and find out how their children perform.

But for parents and teachers who contend that schools spend too much time getting third-, fifth- and eighth-graders ready for the spring exams, the proposal to test more grades prompted a sharp reaction.

"All the schools seem to be doing is processing kids for the exams," said Chuck LaPorte, parent of a middle-school child in northwestern Baltimore County. "If we add tests to more grades, that means all teachers will be expected to get their kids ready. I call it a waste of time."

In recommending that Maryland expand testing, Achieve officials said such a move would dovetail with President Bush's education plan calling for states to begin annual testing in grades three through eight.

"You should look to spread out the concepts you're testing, taking some from grades three, five and eight and put them in four, six and seven," said Jennifer Vranek, Achieve's director of benchmarking and state services. Her group is sponsoring an education summit next week in New York.

Although the House and Senate are still negotiating a final education reform bill, both chambers have passed legislation requiring annual schoolwide testing. Most educators believe it will be part of the final federal plan, forcing states such as Maryland -- which now test only a handful of grades -- to expand their programs.

Yet state education officials say they do not expect to replicate the MSPAP exams for the in-between grades.

"Are we going to just take the MSPAP and add more items for other grades? Absolutely not," said assistant state superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer.

First given in 1991, MSPAP has become a crucial part 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. Pupils are called upon to apply their knowledge, often by working in small groups and writing long essays, and the testing has prompted teachers to pay more attention to writing instruction.

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 state's 24 school systems remain far below the goal of 70 percent of pupils scoring "satisfactory."

But the content of the exams has been criticized. A study commissioned by the Abell Foundation last year concluded that the tests are full of mistakes and are an invalid measure of children's skills and knowledge -- points disputed by state officials.

For years, some teachers also have complained that the testing assumed too large a role in driving what occurs in classrooms.

"It's everything for the test, all the time," said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

Part of the discontent over MSPAP concerns the amount of time that pupils must spend taking the exams -- nine hours in a single week. Maryland also requires that all second-, fourth- and sixth-graders take a national, standardized reading and math exam, which uses almost two more hours of class time.

State officials said shorter, multiple-choice tests would take less time, and Vranek agreed that "various kinds of assessments can peacefully co-exist."

State officials also say they would try not to divert more instructional time into preparing for or taking tests.

But if the state were to expand its testing program, it could become a political issue. Next week, a Republican delegate from Anne Arundel County and a Republican Prince George's County Council member are sponsoring a summit on MSPAP at Bowie State University.

"I've been hearing that my constituents have a lot of concerns," said Audrey E. Scott, vice chairwoman of the Prince George's council and potential candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. "If we end up with more testing, it could very, very well become part of the next election."

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