MSPAP debate is a test for Md.

Conflict: While hailed as a national model, the state's performance exam is the focus of a growing education battle in the state.

October 14, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland pupils won't start taking the next round of state tests for another six months.

But preparation for those exams began the moment they returned to classrooms this fall -- and it's the time they have to spend getting ready that's at the heart of attacks on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Critics say that teachers and schools waste thousands of hours prepping for a series of exams that they don't believe even accurately gauge whether children know basic facts.

Supporters say Maryland's testing program is a model for the rest of the nation -- a series of tests that compels pupils to apply skills in thoughtful, creative ways and forces teachers to improve what they do.

It's a fight that has grown in intensity over the past year, including a highly critical report commissioned by a local foundation and signs that the exams could become part of the state's 2002 political debate.

"These two visions have been at battle for over 100 years," says Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who spoke last week at a Bowie meeting organized by testing opponents. "I'm sure it's a battle that will continue for many more."

But with President Bush calling for states to start testing children annually in grades three through eight, it seems likely that Maryland schools will be in for more exams, not fewer.

And despite some recent vocal criticism, support for the Maryland testing program -- both nationally and among the state's political and educational leadership -- seems as strong as it's ever been.

Called miz-pap by kids and teachers, the MSPAP exams are given each May to all of the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

Unlike traditional, standardized, multiple-choice exams, the MSPAP tests aim to measure more than basic reading and math skills. For five mornings, 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 remains far below that target.

From the time the tests were first given in 1991, the debate over the MSPAP has simmered quietly.

Early on, many teachers, principals and parents tried to ignore the exams, figuring that the idea would eventually be discarded as another in a long line of education fads.

But as the state stuck with the tests and threatened to take over low-performing schools, even the most stubborn districts started paying attention. These days, it's almost impossible to find an elementary or middle school classroom that doesn't have posters hanging on the walls offering pupils tips on MSPAP-inspired exercises.

Here and there, pockets of dissent have popped up, often a handful of vocal parents threatening to boycott MSPAP by pulling their children from classes for the week of exams. (Children who miss days of the exam are given zeroes, pulling down a school's score.) Yet those protests haven't amounted to much, rarely more than five to 10 families.

More quietly, many parents have complained for years that they never find out how their children perform, because the tests are designed to grade the school not the student.

They're also frustrated that they don't know what's on the test. Questions are kept secret because they're often re-used in subsequent years, and the state has only released a dozen or so questions over the past decade.

"There's a great secrecy around this test," says Del. Janet Greenfield, an Anne Arundel County Republican who has taken a lead in the fight against the exams, including organizing an "Education Summit" at Bowie State University last week. "The Maryland schools and our children are being tested on this, but we're not allowed to see what the test actually is."

But the MSPAP exams have become the centerpiece of Maryland's education efforts, gaining national attention for their longevity and their role in directing changes in instruction.

No other state has been using the same set of tests for as long a period of time -- giving Maryland a unique opportunity to track how every elementary and middle school has been performing.

The highly respected group that sponsored last week's National Education Summit in New York used glowing terms to describe the quality of Maryland's accountability program.

"There's a lot of rhetoric in other states, but we've seen action in Maryland," said Matt Gandal, vice president of Achieve Inc., a nonpartisan education reform group. "There have been some very bold, dramatic actions taken in Maryland that other states have not been able to take."

If so many educators outside of Maryland consider it a national leader when it comes to testing and accountability, why do there continue to be some complaints at home?

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