Flexibility on MSPAP in question

Schools were given option to suspend test for 8th-graders

Federal funds at issue

Decision expected from U.S. education agency by next week

March 12, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Six days after saying public school systems could decide whether to suspend the eighth-grade portion of Maryland's signature exams in the spring, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told them yesterday they might have no choice in the matter after all.

At issue is the link between the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and $275 million in federal money the schools are to receive next year for programs that help special education and low-income students. State officials fear they could lose the money if they fail to administer the standardized tests, a yardstick required by the federal government.

"Though I know we are under a very tight deadline at this time, I want to ask your cooperation over the next few days in slowing down your local board discussions on this matter until after next week," Grasmick wrote in a letter to local superintendents.

By then, Grasmick wrote, she should know whether the U.S. Department of Education, with whom she and her staff have been meeting, will allow the state to suspend any part of the MSPAP.

"The outcome of these discussions is anything but certain," Grasmick said.

The MSPAP has been the centerpiece of school reform in Maryland for a decade, with tests administered to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders to gauge progress at schools. In the weeks since last year's MSPAP results were made public, critics have said the scores -- which dropped in 20 of 24 districts -- are flawed because of technical and scoring errors.

Within a year, the state is expected to replace the test for eighth-graders with a middle school exam that meets President Bush's new federal testing requirements.

School boards were told last week that they have until March 22 to decide whether to give the test to eighth-graders in the spring. The weeklong exam is scheduled to begin April 29.

Montgomery County was prepared to opt out today. School board members there are still expected to discuss the topic, and likely will approve a measure to suspend the tests, "pending further notification from the state superintendent that the test can be suspended," according to a memo written by board President Reginald M. Felton.

Baltimore County also was supposed to vote tonight, Carroll County tomorrow and Anne Arundel next week. Last week, Howard County decided to continue offering the high-stakes exam.

"Until we know whether MSPAP's going to be tied into federal funding, it would be inappropriate for us to make a decision because we'd be jeopardizing $23 million in federal funding," said Baltimore County school board President Donald L. Arnold.

Time is running out. "If they don't make their minds up soon, we'll have to go with the test," he said. "We'd rather not go with the test, but we can't jeopardize the federal funding either."

Carroll interim schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker has been polling his system's principals and administrative supervisors to determine whether they believe the test should be given. "Some feel the test is valuable and some feel it isn't," he said.

But, Ecker added, he understands the state's caution.

"I'm sure that Dr. Grasmick is in the middle, too, between the feds and what we'd like to do, so I'm sure it's difficult," he said. Losing $275 million is "not something to take lightly. I don't know all the ins and outs, and I don't know how many dollars that would mean for Carroll County. But we can't afford to lose one dollar, and we would certainly lose some if the state lost $275 million."

Sun staff writer Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this story.

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