Bye-bye, MSPAP

Tests: Making the standard bearer optional for eighth-graders may signal the beginning of the end.

March 06, 2002

THE INHERENT message behind state school officials' decision to make previously mandatory eighth-grade tests optional is this: The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program's shelf-life is soon to expire.

What a message to send students whose teachers have prodded and prepped them all year in anticipation (or dread) of the tests used to judge school quality.

And it's some burden to pass on to the local school boards and systems: Each must decide now whether to administer the exams or take a pass. This shifts the continuing controversy over the state's successful standards and accountability program to the local school boards. If it isn't carefully managed, standards could lurch backward on the rising tide of complaints about the test.

For Carroll, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, whose officials implored the state to stop administering MSPAP until revised tests are developed, this is a partial victory. It is a gift to quell the vocal dissenters who were unhappy with fluctuating test scores and beginning to question the tests' validity.

The state Department of Education gives reasoned arguments supporting the decision to make the test optional: Its staff must begin now, if they are to meet deadlines, to design the future MSPAP, which will provide individual progress reports. They are ready to turn their resources to developing middle school standards, curricula and tests that will meet new federal guidelines, and prepare students for high schools that also must meet tougher graduation requirements. They can do without eighth-grade testing for a year.

According to state school officials, some local systems seeking a break from the test insist there won't be any slacking off. They can cover a lot of content in the time that they usually invest in preparing for and administering the MSPAP tests. There's some question about whether they should have put so much emphasis on test prepping to begin with, but their argument won out.

Thus, it seems that making MSPAP optional for eighth-graders serves little or no educational purpose. Rather, this decision is a way to smooth the very political process of developing MSPAP's replacement, and may ease state officials' burden of winning local systems' cooperation.

After a decade of marching to the unrelenting accountability drumbeat, a suddenly optional test is decidedly off tempo. The local systems may get to make the call, but it's still the state's job to ensure that the optional test doesn't become an excuse for standards taking a holiday.

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