Test scores stump officials

Montgomery leads chorus of critics on MSPAP validity

Change coming, but slowly

January 30, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Darnestown Elementary outside Gaithersburg is a National Blue Ribbon School with many pupils coming from half-million-dollar homes, a stable teaching staff and a principal who seems to be doing all the right things.

But the school's latest MSPAP test scores, released this week, tell a different story -- one of falling achievement. In the tests given last spring, 65.5 percent of the schools' third-graders met state standards, down from 78.3 percent the year before.

Now, like not a few of his peers across the state, Darnestown Principal Larry Chep is scratching his head -- unsure what to do with this mess of data he has in front of him.

He's supposed to look at the numbers from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test and tweak instruction at his school -- the hallmark of any good assessment tool. But he readily admits he doesn't know what to do.

"There is nothing we could see why our scores would go down like that," Chep said yesterday. "I have to accept the scores ... but I have to question the validity of the scores."

Montgomery County officials, particularly the county's school superintendent, are at the forefront of rising questions statewide about the tests, their validity and the direction of their underlying instructional program.

They seem headed toward breaking ranks with the state over the testing program, becoming this week the first local officials in the program's 10-year history to launch public criticism of MSPAP.

"It's kind of like going to the doctor and [the doctor] saying, `There's something wrong with you, but I don't know exactly what to tell you differently," said Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

State officials continue to stand by the scores, which have stagnated since 1997, saying their analysis shows the tests are "valid and reliable."

"It's a fragile instrument, and for any one school, it may not be telling the whole story," said Assistant State Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer. "That's why you have to look at the measurement over time. The test on the 2001 test is going to be the 2002 test."

But Montgomery officials -- who did an extensive study of the MSPAP scores and know of other schools like Darnestown with what they call inexplicable scores -- say performance at many of these schools can't be explained by anything besides scoring errors.

Some are even calling for the tests to be scrapped, instead of being given again this spring. "I have concerns about giving the test this May," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County teachers union, "and I've been a huge fan of the MSPAP test."

Montgomery's overall MSPAP scores dropped almost 4 1/2 percentage points, falling along with 20 of 24 school systems in Maryland. Only five Maryland systems fell more than Montgomery.

Across Maryland, 120 schools saw drops in their composite scores of 10 or more percentage points in 2001, more than double the number of slumping schools in any other year since the test began in 1993, Weast said.

For years, critics -- most of them outside the state's educational establishment -- have nipped at the heels of MSPAP, questioning whether more emphasis should be placed on testing basic skills and knowledge of facts.

They've also questioned why students spend so much time preparing for tests for which they never see individual results. The tests are not designed to judge the abilities of individual pupils, but to grade the effectiveness of schoolwide instruction in six subjects: math, reading, writing, language, social studies and science.

But along with announcing this year's scores Monday, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced that Maryland will move to a system where pupils receive individual scores. This is to conform with new federal rules and the recommendations of a state panel.

The timing could be perfect.

"Even if there wasn't this current furor, in a couple of years, the state of Maryland would have to have a new test," said John F. "Jack" Jennings, co-chairman of the Visionary Panel for Better Schools, a 40-member body of education, business and community leaders charged with fashioning a blueprint for education reform in the state over the next decade.

At the same time, Jennings said, the state will work on developing Maryland's first statewide curriculum -- something that would have been politically inconceivable 10 years ago but will likely be embraced now.

"Today, teachers see that the state is going to stay in the accountability business," Jennings said. "It's not going to go away, so tell us up front what you're testing. State testing is here to stay."

"It's a conversation" that was bound to happen, said Reginald M. Felton, president of the Montgomery County school board and director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. "It may be a little earlier happening, but it would be happening."

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