MSPAP scores fall as pupils' success appears to plateau

Growing diversity of students, rise in new teachers cited

Tests to be overhauled

January 29, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

For the second time in three years, Maryland's public school pupils slipped on the state's mandatory annual exams, indicating that their achievement has stagnated since 1997.

The decline - as well as recent federal changes and recent reviews of Maryland's decade of school improvement efforts - prompted the state superintendent yesterday to announce an overhaul of the state exams, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP.

Significantly, this overhaul includes plans to use the tests within several years to generate scores for individual pupils, not just for whole schools or school systems - a move to address one of the major criticisms of MSPAP.

"Our scores have plateaued, that's the reality of it," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "Rather than seeing it as a negative, we see it as an opportunity ... to move our agenda forward."

On last spring's battery of MSPAP exams, 20 of Maryland's 24 school systems posted lower scores, and only one district - Howard County - is within 10 percentage points of meeting the state's objective of 70 percent of pupils achieving a score of "satisfactory."

Scores on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills - a national standardized exam given in grades two, four and six - also have been flat statewide, suggesting that the stagnant pupil achievement is related to more than problems with the MSPAP.

One of the few bright spots was Baltimore, where pupils made the state's second-largest gain and continued a pattern of steady improvement since 1997, when a landmark city-state partnership began funneling tens of millions of extra dollars into the district.

Some small systems that had been making large gains fell back in 2001, including Kent, Garrett, Wicomico, Talbot, Dorchester and Somerset counties. By contrast, Worcester County made the largest jump in the state and has improved more than any other district since 1993.

Kent lost its two-year hold on the state's No. 1 ranking, falling to third behind Howard and Calvert counties. The two large Washington suburban systems, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, also had noticeable drops.

The results of the 2001 MSPAP exams were held up for two months by state officials, who were unsure what to make of the overall drop in scores and wild fluctuations in many schools' results.

After the state's scoring system was reaffirmed by both outside researchers, state officials said they are as confident in the 2001 results as in previous years' and will use them to reward improving schools and punish those that are failing. But some local school officials, particularly in Montgomery County, continue to challenge the results.

State sanctions could start coming as soon as today, when the state school board is set to decide whether to take over more low-performing schools. During the past eight years, Maryland has identified 102 low-performing schools, most in Baltimore, as being eligible for state takeover.

The majority of those low-performing schools posted at least modest gains in 2001, and state officials announced yesterday that one Baltimore elementary - City Springs - had improved enough to leave the list, becoming the fourth school ever to do so.

Of the three city schools taken over by the state in 2000-2001 and put under control of a for-profit organization, the Edison Schools, only one - Montebello - showed higher pupil achievement.

And at Pimlico Elementary - which was removed from that failing list last year and celebrated by state officials as proof that low-income children can achieve with the right instruction - scores plummeted, largely because about a third of pupils' test scores were disqualified for security breaches.

Two other elementaries - Dr. Rayner Browne in Baltimore and Apple Grove in Prince George's - also had portions of their fifth-grade scores thrown out because of improper coaching from teachers, state officials said.

Statewide, 43.7 percent of pupils had a score of satisfactory in 2001, down from 45.3 percent in 2000. That drop was within the 2 percentage point statewide "margin of error," said state officials. That margin grows for smaller subsets of pupils, to as large as 10 percentage points for smaller elementaries.

Although pupils have improved 12 percentage points since the tests began in 1993, almost all of those gains were made in the first five years - leaving scores virtually unchanged since 1997.

About 35 percent of the state's elementary and middle schools gained at least 2 percentage points in 2001, while 41 percent dropped by at least that much. Only one in 20 of all schools statewide have posted gains of at least 2 percentage points three years in a row.

Despite recent efforts to narrow achievement gaps between white pupils and minority pupils and between girls and boys, these continued across the board.

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