Don't blame test for failing scores

Factor: Those criticizing MSPAP should consider the possibility that even in Montgomery County, poor instruction might play a role in score declines.

February 03, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE PRINCIPAL of Darnestown Elementary School in Gaithersburg is at a loss to explain a 13- point decline in the recently announced third-grade MSPAP scores.

Such things don't happen at a National Blue Ribbon School in Montgomery County, which has a school system long the envy of everyone else in Maryland. The principal said nothing had changed in the operation of his school from 2000 to the spring of last year, when the recently reported test was given. So the problem must be the test.

That's the line coming from officials and some teachers in Montgomery this year in the first major breaking of ranks in the 10-year history of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

It's an attitude that's driving educators elsewhere in Maryland up the wall, especially those in Baltimore who, after a decade of struggle, are placing a growing number of schools at or near the state average in MSPAP.

And pity the principal and teachers at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, also in Montgomery County. Top county officials point to Broad Acres as an example of a school with many pupils from low-income families that saw an unexplained spike in scores this time.

In other words, don't celebrate Broad Acres' nearly 17-point increase in third-grade reading. Announce that it's statistically suspect.

But the fact is that a change of more than a few points in either direction on MSPAP usually is explainable. The state Education Department's marvelous Web site (www.msde.state.md.us) tells much. Honest principals and teachers tell much more.

For example, there are some factors that educators don't like to discuss in public. There's the "dud class" effect, for example. An entire grade can pull down MSPAP scores all the way through school.

At wealthy schools such as Darnestown, where most members of a grade stay together, you can compare last year's fifth-grade reading scores with 1999's third-grade reading scores and be looking at mostly the same kids.

When you do that, you see that third-grade reading scores in 1999 declined by almost 14 points. It's fair to conclude that those same kids - or many of them - faltered in the most recent test as well.

The opposite, of course, is the "star grade," every teacher's dream. This year's fifth-grade class at Riderwood Elementary in Baltimore County is a star grade, having aced both the third-grade MSPAP reading test and the fourth-grade Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills

When Montgomery officials aren't blaming the test, they're pointing to demographic factors that greatly influence MSPAP performance. One of the richest districts in Maryland - according to state figures based on family income and property value, it has $416,000 in wealth behind each school child, compared with Baltimore's $137,000; and it spends annually about 29 percent, or $2,300, more per student than Baltimore - Montgomery nonetheless enrolls the majority of the state's children with limited English proficiency. Many are poor, and many have inexperienced teachers.

Because the state this time cracked down on exempting these children from MSPAP testing, several Montgomery schools have been affected, according to Gary Heath, the state Education Department's branch chief for arts and sciences. Example: Weller Road Elementary in Silver Spring exempted 13 of 109 third-graders with limited English skills from the 2000 MSPAP reading test. Last year, with but one of 98 exempted, third-grade reading scores tanked by 11.4 percentage points.

One cause of the "wild swings" in MSPAP scoring isn't tracked on the state's Web site, though perhaps it ought to be. It's teacher turnover, particularly in the early grades - and particularly in reading, the teaching of which requires great skill.

Linda Eberhart, a fourth- and fifth-grade math and science teacher at Baltimore's Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School and Maryland's Teacher of the Year, says veteran teachers cringe when two or three teachers are replaced in the early grades.

It usually means an eventual decline in third-grade reading scores, she says, not because the new teachers won't be accomplished professionals in time, but because in education so much is learned on the job.

Then there are the flu and mobility factors. From 1999 to 2001, fifth-grade reading scores plummeted from 52.4 percent satisfactory to 25.9 percent satisfactory at Friendsville Elementary in Garrett County.

But only 27 fifth-graders at Friendsville took the test last year, and 43 students entered or withdrew from the fifth grade during the two years, 15 of them between 2000 and last year. No responsible observer can vouch for the reliability of wild swings in either direction at tiny schools like Friendsville, where principals say the absence of only one or two kids can make a difference and high mobility rates greatly increase margins of error.

The lessons in all of this? Before blaming MSPAP, look at results over several years. (Because MSPAP is a decade old, Marylanders have the luxury of long-range examination.) Look carefully at demographics, especially at statistics educators might want to hide. Consider the possibility that even in Montgomery County, poor instruction might be a factor in score declines.

Then, and only then, blame the test and the way it's scored.

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