Law raises questions about reading tests

The Education Beat

Process: Evaluating competence will be tricky and expensive for the states.

January 20, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHAT'S THE best way to test reading?

It's a burning question raised by the sweeping new education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law this month by President Bush.

The act requires testing in reading and math of all children in grades three through eight, and because only 15 states have such tests in place, there's going to be frenzy in the fill-in-the-bubble business, dominated by three companies that also publish textbooks. One estimate is that the $390 million spent by the states on testing last year will be tripled.

If the act required yearly testing in science and math, or in math and history, there wouldn't be nearly the buzz. But evaluating competence in reading is tricky. It's also expensive in states, such as Maryland, that rely on live humans instead of computer scanners to score tests.

Maryland gives the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests in grades three, five and eight and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills in grades two, four and six. Both require children to read and respond to short passages. MSPAP's responses are in writing, usually no more than a few sentences. The CTBS, an off-the-shelf test purchased from a major publisher, has a multiple-choice format, which is ill-suited for tapping into the higher-order thinking that takes place when people read.

At least, that's the opinion of Clifford Hill, a testing authority at Teachers College, Columbia University. "Multiple-choice tests encourage a focus on surface detail at the expense of more active thinking," says Hill. "It's for this reason that so many early-childhood educators have taken a stand against the use of multiple-choice to test reading."

You'd think constructing a multiple-choice question would be easy, but it's not, says Hill. Test-makers must create attractive "wrong" answers so that not everyone chooses the "right" one. The "right" answer, Hill says, tends to focus on surface details, while the "wrong" answers "are often built around inferences that naturally occur in everyday reading. So the test-maker is pulled from both directions."

MSPAP, of course, has no such problem. The students construct their responses. They might read a passage describing two sports, then be asked to write a brief letter to a friend recommending one or the other. Scoring is based on how well the child comprehended the passage.

"We go through a long and exhaustive process to make sure the [passages] are readable and appropriate to the grade level," says Gary Heath, chief of the Maryland State Department of Education's arts and sciences branch. They're field-tested in a state that Heath won't identify, although he says it's demographically similar to Maryland.

Anyone with kids in public school or who reads a newspaper knows the knocks against MSPAP: It's really a test of writing, not of reading. It doesn't sufficiently measure the skills of reading - for example, whether a third-grader has mastered phonics. And because it judges the performance of schools, not of individual kids, teachers can't use MSPAP for diagnosis at the student and classroom levels. (There's also little incentive for kids to do well on MSPAP unless they're bribed by their principals.)

MSPAP has withstood these complaints for a decade and has garnered outstanding reviews from many who know about testing. Moreover, the state has determined to revise MSPAP so it produces individual scores that are comparable from year to year. The new law requires it.

Much of what else the new federal law requires is up in the air. Despite the 1,200 pages of the No Child Left Behind Act, the regulations governing it are just being drafted. The devil is in the details. Here are some questions that haven't been answered:

Which test will Maryland use in the seventh grade, which has no statewide exam?

Will Maryland want to continue the CTBS, a national test that's not fully aligned with the state's reading curriculum?

What does the act mean when it requires that reading programs be based on "scientific research?" Says Heath, "One person's science may not be shared by another."

Will the state finally make MSPAP less secretive? Of course there has to be security. But as Achieve Inc., an independent outside evaluator, observed: "More effort may be needed to convince the public that what the state expects all students to know and be able to do is relevant and worthwhile."

Finally, what's going to happen to the other components of MSPAP, now that the new federal law has put so many eggs in the reading and math baskets?

Hill, of Teachers College, worries about this. He feels there's likely to be a "distortion" of the curriculum, with much of the new federal money being put into math and reading coaching and test preparation, while subjects such as science and art are neglected.

Sound familiar?

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