Coming apart at the seams

EDUCATION BEAT

MSPAP: A plan to let districts opt out of testing eighth-graders in the spring spells doom for the `Cadillac' of tests.

March 06, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S SAD to see the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program unraveling.

But that's what's happening. Yesterday's announcement by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick that districts could opt out of this spring's eighth-grade testing appears to be only the first nail in the coffin.

When districts are allowed to decide if they want to participate, year-to-year statewide uniformity is lost, and uniformity is the secret to MSPAP's integrity. The more districts that opt out, the less reliable the data and the harder the job of "equating" results from one year to the next.

MSPAP's doom was sealed when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January. The act requires districts to test pupils in grades three through eight yearly in reading and math and to express scores on an individual basis. That MSPAP doesn't do this has been one of its weaknesses from the get-go.

The official get-go was eight years ago, which makes Maryland's program the grandfather of its kind in the nation. That's one reason it's sad to see it go. You can get on the state's excellent Web site (www.msde.state.md.us) and trace data over seven years. It's a luxury no other state can claim.

MSPAP is also valuable in that it is a performance test, not just a fill-in-the-bubble test requiring rote learning. "Most of the states have Ford Taurus tests," said James Watts, vice president for state services at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

"Maryland's is the Cadillac, and it's loaded."

In retrospect, state officials probably should have included some "objective" multiple-choice questions from the beginning. It might have quieted some of the critics. But it's a moot point now. Maryland will have a new set of tests in grades three through eight by 2004, but MSPAP as we know it will be no more.

Warning to students who are college-bound

It's college acceptance time, which means it's also time for students to search for scholarships and other forms of financial aid. And time to warn students and their parents against scholarship "services" that charge fees for information available for free at schools and public libraries.

Typically, the outfits reserve hotel suites and invite parents and students to drop in for a session that will eventually "lessen or even eliminate your family's expenses" for college, as one service put it. Similarly, the Internet is littered with Web sites that charge fees for searching scholarship information anyone can obtain for nothing.

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the problem is intensified because the U.S. Education Department encourages students to file the federal financial aid form via the Internet.

But when an association official recently pulled up major search engines, he found the official (and free) site (fafsa.ed.gov) listed among a number of sites requiring fees, such as easyfafsa.com.

As usual, buyer, or in this case searcher, beware.

Western Tech honors its top SAT scorers

With the Terps shooting for the moon, there's been much talk of late about retiring sports uniforms.

Kenneth Burch, principal of the Western School of Technology in Baltimore County, thought a similar honor should be afforded academic prowess. So last week Western Tech honored two students with the school's highest SAT scores this year, both well above 1,500 out of a possible 1,600. Plaques bearing the names, photos and scores of Jimmy Culver and Micah Glass-Siegel took the place of athletic uniforms.

Sunshine State catches the phonics bug

Florida is going phonics big-time. Reports last week said Gov. Jeb Bush and his education commissioner, Charlie Crist, have informed elementary schools that reading instruction will be phonics-based, starting next year.

It's a significant move because Crist has the final say over what textbooks are used in Florida's public schools, and the Sunshine State is the nation's third largest textbook market after Texas and California. (Districts can get waivers to purchase books of their choice, but they're required to spend at least half of the $200 million in annual state grants on state-approved materials.)

The Tampa Tribune, meanwhile, disclosed that the nation's four largest textbook publishers are so anxious to get the business that they've agreed with handshakes to provide each of Florida's 60,000 elementary reading teachers with 100 hours of free training.

On Florida's state-approved list are SRA/McGraw Hill's Open Court and Reading Mastery (also known as Direct Instruction) series, both widely used in Baltimore.

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