Maryland schools get a C for effort

MSPAP: The eighth year of state performance-based testing reveals struggles that won't go away.

January 30, 2002

IN THE EUPHEMISTIC language of academic testing, Maryland's test scores are "leveling off" or starting to "plateau." Translation: Maryland earned a grade of C, or status quo.

Maybe it doesn't sound so bad, until you look at the numbers behind the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores released this week.

About 56 percent of the state's students are not earning satisfactory scores eight years after the testing program's inception.

In 2001, reading scores slipped in rural counties. Math scores dipped statewide.

Jurisdictions that can afford the best books and teachers felt the foundation shudder under their traditionally high scores.

After nearly a decade of education officials insisting that MSPAP's focus on school management and critical-thinking lessons would benefit all students, girls outperform boys on the tests, and children of color generally earn lower scores than white children.

Plateau is a word that may mollify wealthy Montgomery County, where third-grade reading scores dipped to an eight-year low (and some rush to argue that the change is "statistically insignificant"). The same characterization of student performance should incense poor schools in Baltimore City, where after years of public flogging and hard work, the rock-bottom test scores crawled up a tick.

Teachers say the scores are wobbling because MSPAP is just a testing program, flawed because it's not packaged with a fleshed-out teaching plan or an investment in professional development to cement school improvement.

"The wide fluctuation of test scores this year will provide additional ammunition for those who view MSPAP as an ill-conceived though well-meaning attempt to measure the effectiveness of Maryland's public schools," said Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, the politically influential teachers' union.

State officials hypothesize that scores are swinging because of immigration and schools' increased use of novice teachers. While releasing the scores, Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick called for the development of a state reading curriculum to show schools the way.

It has taken the state too long to acknowledge that MSPAP needs a stronger curriculum component. Yet state officials were quick to demand that low-performing schools improve their curricula.

A reading curriculum is part of the medicine the state fed Baltimore's schools, which at one time chose their own teaching systems. It's working, say parents and teachers, who anticipate test score gains over time.

And in fact, a new curriculum (and a new staff) are among the first sweeping changes demanded by the state of the low-scoring schools designated for the makeovers of "reconstitution" and takeover.

A curriculum is a lifeline for teachers, and should have accompanied the MSPAP program from the start. But at the time of MSPAP's development, state officials argued their job was to test and punish, to prod improvement. They offered advice but would not dictate how school systems should climb to the bar that Ms. Grasmick insisted Maryland must raise high.

And now that school systems recognize they can't coast uphill, what do they say? They blame the test.

Some example this sets for our children.

MSPAP has been tested and retested at great expense, and the most recent results apparently proved what critics didn't want to hear: For all their successes, Maryland schools still have a long way to go to make the grade.

This is not the time to squabble over who's to blame for Maryland's mediocre report card, or to throw more money at justifying or damning the test.

The best use of educators' expertise and a troubled state budget would be to identify and acquire the most effective resources, curricula and teaching methods Maryland can afford.

If your child brought home unimpressive grades, and you knew he could do better, you'd tell him to hit the books.

Maryland's eighth report card suggests that the people employed to make MSPAP effective need to learn the same lesson.

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