Districts will get choice on MSPAP

State won't require schools to test 8th-graders in spring

March 05, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

To subdue mounting criticism of Maryland's annual exams, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will announce today that local school districts will be allowed to opt out of this spring's eighth-grade tests.

The move will mark a substantial change to the state's school accountability program, which won national recognition for a decade of testing all Maryland third-, fifth- and eighth-graders. Within a year, the state will replace the eighth-grade test with a middle school exam that meets President Bush's new federal testing requirements.

"This is a way to begin and to signal that big changes are coming," Grasmick said last night.

Grasmick also will announce that the state's teachers will not score this spring's third- and fifth-grade Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams. Instead, for the first time, the tests will be graded by employees of a private firm.

Maryland had been the only state to use its teachers to grade all of its statewide exams, which meant results weren't returned to schools until November or December. The change will get scores back by early September, Grasmick said, in time to adjust instruction based on the results.

But the changes are not enough to satisfy local school board members and parents critical of the MSPAP tests. In recent weeks, they've contended that this year's MSPAP scores - which dropped in 20 of 24 districts - are flawed because of technical and scoring errors. Yesterday, the state PTA joined the growing chorus calling for all the tests to be suspended this spring.

"I'm pleased that there is some recognition of the issues that we've raised ... and that our eighth-graders will not need to take the exams," said Steve Abrams, a member of the Montgomery County school board. "But this doesn't address all of the problems."

The MSPAP exams have been the centerpiece of Maryland's education reform effort since the early 1990s. Unlike standardized multiple-choice exams, the tests ask pupils to apply knowledge by working in groups and writing long answers.

When the 2001 scores were released in January, Grasmick announced plans to make significant changes in the MSPAP exams during the next three years.

The biggest change will be providing all children with individual results. That's a shift from the MSPAP philosophy of grading schools rather than pupils, which prompts some eighth-graders not to take the exams seriously. The president's new federal testing rules require annual reading and math scores for all pupils in grades three through eight.

Grasmick said today's announcement is only the start. Within days, the state also will begin developing a voluntary statewide middle school curriculum - to be followed within a year by an elementary curriculum.

By spring of next year, a new middle school exam will be in place - either created by the state or bought from a private company. The new test will aim to ensure middle school pupils are prepared for the rigorous set of high school exams expected to become a graduation requirement.

It was not clear yesterday how many school systems will choose to give the eighth-grade exams in May. Grasmick said she expects systems to split almost equally.

Caroline County Superintendent Larry W. Lorton said he would have preferred that Grasmick either require all systems to give the eighth-grade tests or abandon them altogether. "Every local district has proponents and opponents to the MSPAP, and now they're all going to come out," said Lorton. "It's going to put an awful lot of unnecessary pressure on local school boards."

In addition to the Montgomery school board and state PTA, the Carroll County school board and Baltimore County teachers union have called for delaying the tests at all grade levels. But state officials say the tests must be given to ensure Maryland gets federal aid - a point disputed by Montgomery school board members.

If many Maryland systems drop the MSPAP tests for eighth-graders this year, its future will be in doubt as a middle school test, said James Watts of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. And then, he said, districts will return to setting their own standards, "and we could be back where we started - same old, same old, with low expectations."

Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

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