The board president and vice president of Maryland's largest school system called for a halt to the state's elementary and middle school testing program yesterday because of concerns about its reliability.
"Growing concerns across Maryland -- not just in Montgomery County -- suggest that mandating the current test even one more year is not in the best interest of our state or our students," wrote Montgomery County school board President Reginald M. Felton and Vice President Patricia B. O'Neill in a letter to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
Montgomery is the first large school system to break ranks over the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
County school officials have charged that this year's MSPAP results are flawed, because of technical errors and the way they are scored over the summer by teachers. Scores in the test -- given last spring -- fell in 20 of Maryland's 24 districts, including Montgomery.
State education officials -- who have insisted they are confident the results are accurate -- said last night that they had just received the letter and had not had time to read it carefully. Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent, said: "I'm sure we will integrate it with our thinking on the transition of our testing program."
The MSPAP exams have been the centerpiece of Maryland's education reform effort since the early 1990s. Unlike standardized, multiple-choice exams, MSPAP tests call on pupils to apply knowledge by working in groups and writing long answers.
The release of the 2001 scores was delayed for two months by state officials after they found surprising fluctuations in the scores of many individual schools. But a review by outside researchers detected no significant problems, and state officials said the scores show pupil achievement has reached a plateau.
Nevertheless, when the scores were released, Grasmick announced plans to make significant changes in the MSPAP exams over the next three years.
The biggest change will be ensuring that all children will be able to receive individual tests -- a shift from the MSPAP philosophy of grading schools rather than pupils. The new federal education bill requires annual individual reading and math test scores for all pupils in grades three through eight.
In their letter, Felton and O'Neill wrote that "the absence of such data from MSPAP has undermined its usefulness."
"Why should thousands of students and teachers be required to go through one, two or three more years of a controversial testing program with disputed results while we wait for a new test?" they wrote. "We urge you and the Maryland State Board of Education to delay further use of the current MSPAP until and unless the test is reconstituted to reflect the best interests of parents, students, teachers and principals, as well as national educational policy."
The Baltimore County PTA Council, raising many of the same questions, called for a halt last week to MSPAP testing until a new exam is developed.