A scary future: MSPAP online

The Education Beat

Technology: Electronic services are vying for the business of creating and scoring standardized tests.

April 24, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

HERE'S AN alternative (and slightly scary) scenario for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program:

Within five years, kids will march to their schools' computer labs to take the MSPAP tests. Even essays will be scored by computer, the results sorted, matched against the state's academic standards and returned instantaneously to schools and students.

Gone are the 700 human scorers who have spent these last 10 summers poring over MSPAP essays. Gone, too, is the seven-month delay in getting results to principals and the public.

Outlandish? Not at all. The technology is available to do all of the above and to do it at a much lower cost, at least in the long run. Several companies promoting online testing and scoring are vying for a piece of the action under the new federal No Child Left Behind Act. One estimate is that $300 million will be spent nationally to meet the law's requirement that all kids in grades three through eight be tested in math and reading.

Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant Maryland state superintendent, said test vendors "are coming out of the woodwork" to grab a piece of the action, and they're not selling old-fashioned pencil-and-paper procedures. One firm has hired a respected California superintendent just to gain entry to the offices of key state education officials.

For more than a decade, the Educational Testing Service (father of the SAT) has been researching the characteristics of natural language and devising computer programs to assess writing. Just this week, ETS announced a pilot project in Indiana using the "e-rater" technology of one of its for-profit arms, ETS Technologies Inc.

EdVISION Corp., another vendor wanting Maryland's business, promises personalized tests for each test-taker and "customized reports [that] allow each student's gains to be measured according to state and national objectives and standards." (Personalized tests, of course, make it all but impossible to cheat.)

The company also claims it can assess an 11-grade breadth of knowledge in a single classroom, eight grades more than a typical standardized test can measure and four grades more than the seven levels found in a typical classroom.

But how does a computer assess writing? It's programmed to search for the language patterns of well-crafted text. The irony here is that an Abell Foundation report recently criticized MSPAP human scorers for doing just that: hurriedly looking for key words and phrases while overlooking essay answers that might be perfectly acceptable.

ETS says its research shows a 90 percent correlation between human and computer essay scoring.

Peiffer says an entirely computerized MSPAP won't happen soon. A small minority of schools are equipped with the high-speed lines required, though that problem will be solved in a few years. Solving problems of security and confidentiality also will take time. That's the scary part. If credit card companies can collect and sell personal information about Maryland families, what will MSPAP.com be able to do in its brave new world?

Families urged to forgo TV through Sunday

From Catonsville to Bel Air, I've seen school marquees this week urging families to join National TV-Turnoff Week through Sunday. Good for them and for thousands of other schools, libraries and community groups.

The average American child will spend more time in front of a TV this year (1,023 hours) than in school (900 hours). Excessive television-watching is a primary culprit in many of today's health epidemics, including obesity, aggressive behavior and heart disease. A week without the tube won't hurt.

At UMUC, graduation day is no simple matter

The University of Maryland University College has an unusual problem. Because it is online and worldwide, it has to hold seven commencements for its 3,700 graduates.

The largest is in Adelphi May 18, with former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen the speaker. The most remote -- and last -- is in Okinawa on June 15, with Adi Ignatius, executive editor of Time, the speaker. UMUC is giving out various medals. No mention of gold medallions.

College drops `community' from name in Garrett Co.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission approved yesterday the dropping of "Community" from Garrett Community College. Officials at the college in Oakland said the change was a marketing strategy to draw students from beyond the area. Enrollment has been stagnant for several years.

And now that Western Maryland College has announced it will let the world know its new name May 10, Education Beat will suspend nominations. We did, however, get a second vote for Old Line College.

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