State delays release of MSPAP test results

Officials will review `wild swings' in scores

November 07, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Baffled by "wild swings" in scores, Maryland education officials announced yesterday that they will delay releasing results of the state's annual elementary and middle school exams for more than a month.

"There are a lot of scores which we just can't explain," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools. "I don't want to release scores that I don't have confidence in, so we need to take the time to go back and look at the scores again. We need to ensure the integrity of the exams."

The scores, from more than 100 schools in all 24 local school systems, included some that seemed too high and some that seemed too low, officials said.

The delay means that teachers, pupils and parents won't find out how their schools scored on the 2001 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests until January at the earliest, eight months after the tests were taken. The test results are usually released at the end of November.

Maryland teachers and local superintendents praised Grasmick's decision yesterday, saying the delay is acceptable if it means they'll have more confidence that the scores are accurate.

"As a former state commissioner of education in Delaware, I know what a difficult decision it must be," said Prince George's County Superintendent Iris T. Metts. "But so many big decisions rely on this test, it's important we get the scores right."

As the centerpiece of Maryland's education reforms of the past decade, the annual release of the test results just after Thanksgiving is eagerly anticipated.

The MSPAP exams are given every spring to all of the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders. Unlike traditional standardized tests of basic skills, MSPAP tests call for pupils to apply their knowledge, often by working in groups and then individually writing long essays for answers.

The tests are not designed to judge the abilities of individual pupils, but instead to measure the effectiveness of schools in math, reading, writing, language, social studies and science.

Schools that improve can win thousands of dollars in extra funding, and those that repeatedly score poorly can be taken over by the state, as has happened to four schools in Baltimore.

"I wouldn't want schools to go through the celebrations or the depression associated with high or low scores and then turn around and take it all back," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union. "I applaud the state superintendent for recognizing there may be something they need a chance to look at."

State education officials say the delay of at least five weeks will give them time to examine this year's results in more detail. Their review will involve going back to pupils' classroom work to see how it compares with test results and checking data with Measurement Inc. and CTB/McGraw-Hill, the companies that work on Maryland's testing program.

"They've asked us some questions, and we're working with them to provide some answers," said Jo Davidson, Measurement Inc.'s project director for MSPAP scoring. The company oversees the scoring of the exams by hundreds of Maryland teachers.

State officials also have asked researchers from the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment to study the scoring and the statistics that produced the results. Researchers from the New Hampshire nonprofit organization will focus primarily on Montgomery, Harford, Kent and Cecil counties with the intent of finding an explanation for what happened across the state.

"It's possible that we'll study the results and we'll decide that they're accurate and that's what will be released in January," Grasmick said.

She said the delay is intended to help Maryland avoid pitfalls encountered by other states, which released test scores that seemed strange and then had to publicly correct them. In some states, incorrectly reported test scores have led to high school seniors' being wrongly denied diplomas.

In 1993, the first year the state reported MSPAP results, state officials didn't publish the results of the third-grade reading and eighth-grade science tests because of problems with some questions. And state officials have occasionally thrown out scores for individual schools for various reasons, including cheating.

But yesterday marked the first time Maryland has decided to delay the release of the entire set of test scores because of strange test scores. "We've had a track record of reporting the correct scores, and we don't want to ruin that," Grasmick said.

Grasmick and other state education officials said no cheating or other improper test-taking behavior is suspected on a large scale. But they say they can't explain certain fluctuations in scores.

When state officials received the results last month, they noted the fluctuations and sent the scores to local school systems for verification, said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent.

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