BOWIE -- Critics of Maryland's elementary and middle school testing program said last night that the state needs to make major changes to the exams to improve teaching and learning.
"There is something wrong with these tests," said Zalee Harris, a Prince George's County education activist. "This can't go on."
About 40 parents and teachers gathered at Bowie State University for last night's meeting, dubbed a "Maryland Education Summit." It was sponsored by two Republican politicians, Del. Janet Greenip from Anne Arundel County and Audrey E. Scott, vice chairwoman of the Prince George's County Council.
Scott -- who plans to seek the Republican nomination for governor next year if Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. decides not to enter the race -- has said she believes Maryland's testing program could become an issue in the political campaign.
Last night's meeting sought to capitalize on the recent criticism of the state's testing program, known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
Given to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders since 1991, the MSPAP exams are far different from traditional, standardized multiple-choice tests. Maryland's tests aim to measure more than basic reading and math skills by asking pupils to apply their knowledge, often by working in small 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.
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 demeans and diminishes the pursuit of pure knowledge and basic skills," Phil Greenfield, a teacher at Annapolis High School and a free-lance arts critic for The Sun, told the gathering.
State education officials -- who did not participate in the meeting -- defend the testing program as a crucial part of Maryland's education reform effort. Many national education groups hold up Maryland as a national model for its testing program's longevity and for its role in directing changes in instruction.
The state also is in the midst of a review of the past decade of education reform, and it appears likely that changes will be made to the MSPAP tests.
Among the potential changes would be giving separate scores to pupils -- the current exams are designed to give scores to schools but not to individuals -- and for the state to more frequently release test questions to the public.
But another preliminary recommendation from the review is to begin testing children in grades four, six and seven -- the years when pupils do not take the MSPAP exams.
"The mere fact that MSPAP may be expanded to every single grade is really causing concern," Scott said.
As an alternative, speakers at the meeting said Maryland ought to look at using more traditional, multiple-choice exams. Maryland requires a basic skills exam for all second-, fourth- and sixth-graders, but it uses the MSPAP results as its main judge of school performance.
"MSPAP cannot tell you how well your child is reading," Greenip said. "The Maryland schools are being tested on other things than how well a child is reading and how well a child can do math."
In addition to criticism of the MSPAP exams, the meeting also included speakers who pushed for greater school choice in Maryland, either through charter schools or private school vouchers.
The meeting last night was the second organized by Greenip on the MSPAP exams, and she said she hopes to schedule more across Maryland during the school year.
"In my opinion, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program needs a lot of work," Greenip said.