State panel had recommended major change in school testing

Reform was in the works before U.S. law dooming MSPAP went into effect

April 25, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The end of MSPAP as we know it was inevitable.

Even before President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January, major changes to the state's signature testing program were in the works.

A 40-member group of educators and business and community leaders, the Visionary Panel for Better Schools, had been working for months on a blueprint for education reform in Maryland over the next 10 years.

And, just a week after the ink dried on Bush's signature on the new 1,200-page federal law, the panel recommended, among other things, that MSPAP be extensively revised to express scores for individual students rather than just schools.

Despite the intense criticism the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program has received during its 10-year history - criticism that flared again this year after most districts saw their scores drop - the test pushed Maryland to the forefront of the national school reform effort and made it a model for other states, said Christopher T. Cross, former president of the Maryland state school board.

MSPAP was born in 1989 out of a report of the Sondheim Commission, convened by Gov. William Donald Schaefer two years earlier.

The first of the commission's top two recommendations was to create a "comprehensive system of public accountability" in which every school, every school system and the state as a whole would be held responsible.

The second suggested that that system "identify excellence, uncover problem areas and point the way toward improvement."

Given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders every spring, the test has been unique in several ways.

It was developed locally and has been scored, for the most part, locally. It contains no multiple-choice questions, but rather emphasizes reading, writing and "higher order" thinking across all content areas. Children sometimes work in groups during the testing period, which lasts several days.

MSPAP was piloted beginning in 1991 but administered officially for the first time during the 1993-1994 school year.

Early on, teachers, principals and some parents didn't take it seriously, figuring it was simply the latest in a string of reforms that tended not to last.

But the state stuck with it, placing schools on probation if they showed little or no improvement. The state took over several failing schools in Baltimore City and handed them to a private company to run.

After the latest round of MSPAP results was released - scores dropped in 20 of the state's 24 school districts - several jurisdictions, led by Montgomery County, questioned the reliability of the exams. The state later gave districts a choice on whether to give the eighth-grade exams this year, unless they receive federal funding earmarked for special education and low-income students.

Walter Sondheim Jr., a state school board member who headed the 1989 education reform commission, said yesterday that he doesn't think the MSPAP is truly dead.

"I don't think it exactly is ending, it's undergoing a change that I think was inevitable," he said. "I think that there can be some confusion and misunderstanding about the fact that the changes come about at the same time that the new federal law has been enacted."

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