Fluctuations in test scores are puzzling

Schools decline after high MSPAP performance in past

`It's extremely frustrating'

14 elementaries, 2 middles dip 2 points in composite results

Carroll County

January 30, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Fourteen months ago, when the last batch of MSPAP scores were released, Virginia Ashmore and her staff at Mount Airy Middle School thought they had things figured out.

Their eighth-graders' scores on Maryland's annual assessment examinations went up in each of six tested categories, from a modest 3.7-point gain in reading to a whopping 22.1-point leap in writing.

"Last year, we thought we really had it. It was, `Ah, hah, we know what we're doing,'" Ashmore recalled. "But this year, it was, `Boom,' and we're right back to not being able to figure things out."

Test results released Monday indicated a three-year decline in Carroll County schools - including double-digit decreases at four elementary schools and two middle schools - and an across-the-board drop at Mount Airy Middle.

There, the 0.5-point dip in science test scores was the good news. Reading scores dropped 6.2 points to their lowest level since the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program began in 1993. Writing plummeted 22 points, language dropped 15.5 points, math sank 14.5 points and social studies dropped 11.1 points.

Although puzzling test score fluctuations and inexplicable declines have educators across Maryland shaking their heads, the conundrum is perhaps nowhere as bewildering as at Mount Airy Middle.

The close-knit school of 625 pupils was recognized in November as one of nine public middle and high schools to win the Maryland State Department of Education's coveted Blue Ribbon Award.

Selection for the annual award demonstrates high achievement in pupil performance, instruction, parent and community involvement and professional development.

Yet if results from the MSPAP exams - designed to measure the effectiveness of schools and school systems rather than the abilities of individual pupils - are to be believed, Mount Airy Middle is not succeeding.

"That's the frustration of every educator," said Ashmore, who is in her sixth year as principal. "I have a hard time equating those two things.

"It's extremely frustrating when you believe what you're doing is valid and should improve instruction and if, in fact, it improves instruction, it should improve the test scores. Then you get the test scores the next year, and they don't do what you think they should have done. I just can't explain it."

Given each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, MSPAP tests are far different than standardized, multiple-choice tests with traditional fill-in-the-bubble score sheets that are run through a computerized scoring machine.

Rather, for five mornings each spring, pupils are called on to apply their knowledge in math, reading, writing, language, social studies and science, often by working in groups and writing long essays that are designed to grade school instruction.

One test question that Ashmore sampled at a two-day workshop on the tests last year revolved around the Archimedes principle of buoyancy.

Participants had to read a passage about the scientific principle, relate it to a story about a king who feared his crown was not made entirely of gold and explain how the king could use the scientific theory to test the metallic composition of his royal headpiece.

"Before I was a principal, I was a science teacher, so I'm familiar with Archimedes principle," Ashmore said. "I started reading the question not only with that background but also the perspective of an adult reader and the first thing that struck me was that the text was extremely difficult. And if it was difficult for me, how difficult was it for an eighth-grader?"(The answer was that the king should compare an equal amount of pure gold to his crown. If the two don't float at the same level, the king would know that his crown wasn't made entirely of gold.)

Beyond Mount Airy, Carroll pupils registered puzzling decreases on the tests, too.

Fourteen of 21 elementary schools and four of nine middle schools saw their composite scores - roughly equivalent to the percentage of students who scored at a satisfactory level - drop by at least 2 points, the percentage generally considered statistically significant.

At Robert Moton Elementary, the composite score sank 13.5 points to the county's second lowest, in front of Taneytown Elementary. Robert Moton's third-grade reading scores fell to the lowest in the county - with only 21 percent of pupils satisfactorily completing the test - registering the school far below the state average and at less than half of their previous year's scores. Principal Cynthia Taylor could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Another Blue Ribbon Award- winning school, Spring Garden Elementary, saw its third- and fifth-grade scores drop in all six subject areas by margins of 5.5 points in fifth-grade language to 24.4 points in fifth-grade reading.

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