A standard for some

Tests: State bows on Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test requirements.

March 30, 2002

STATE EDUCATION officials have always said MSPAP is all about accountability. The program's opponents have always said its purpose is indiscernible, because the test doesn't include simple, straightforward questions.

Turns out they were both wrong. MSPAP is about cash. Federal dollars, to be specific.

State education officials last week reversed an earlier decision to make the eighth-grade MSPAP test optional this year and announced instead that 16 counties will have a choice about the test, but the other eight jurisdictions will have to take it. Why? Because those eight school systems receive federal money for low-income middle school children.

If the kids don't take the test, the feds won't give their schools the money according to new guidelines. If you're in Baltimore City or Prince George's County, you can't even think about making a decision that could cost you millions in federal aid. But if you don't need the cash, you can opt out.

Those facts starkly illustrate the gulf between the educational haves and have-nots in this state.

but more important right now is what this says about MSPAP. It's more than a little disturbing to see state education officials so willing to allow the state's most important performance accountability tool to be cheapened.

On balance, we've been strong supporters of MSPAP since it was created in the early 1990s. But what does it mean if the requirement to meet the standard isn't applied universally? And worse: What does it say about Maryland that money for poor kids is the determinant in who has to comply and who doesn't?

State education officials are busy reshaping the MSPAP tests to comply more fully with new federal standards, and, in part, to appease its harshest critics. Some of those changes will make a lot of sense, and the goal behind any of them should be to make MSPAP a better, more effective tool.

Sadly, last week's decision fails to accomplish either goal.

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