Maryland school test is dropped

MSPAP to be replaced, fails to meet new federal standards, officials say

Current round of testing is last

New performance exam likely to be a commercial product, Grasmick says

April 25, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MSPAP, the Maryland school testing program that has vexed students, teachers and principals, angered critics and reshaped curriculum in classrooms across the state for 10 years, will end with this spring's round of tests that begin Monday, state officials said yesterday.

The centerpiece of school reform in Maryland since it was officially launched in 1993, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program fell victim to requirements of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January by President Bush.

The state must come up with a new test by September, probably a commercial product "customized to our standards," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told the state Board of Education.

Officials said scores on the new test will be made available to individual students, a requirement of the new federal law, and the new test will include "objective" multiple-choice questions.

MSPAP has been sharply criticized for lacking both features.

The federal law also requires that test results be delivered by the beginning of the next school year, which MSPAP fails to do.

Under the new legislation, Maryland and the other states have until 2005 to install tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight. State officials had thought MSPAP would suffice until then in the third, fifth and eighth grades while they developed the new tests.

They already had allowed two-thirds of the state's 24 districts to opt out of eighth-grade testing this spring. But the federal law requires a complete overhaul this year, said Grasmick.

Unique in the nation, MSPAP is a performance test that requires students to complete tasks in writing, putting so-called "higher order thinking skills" to use. It assesses children in six subjects and until this year had been scored by Maryland teachers moonlighting in the summer. It is an assessment of schools' performance, not individual students'.

Surviving two governors in an endurance test matched only by a similar performance test in Kentucky, MSPAP has set the standard for school success or failure in Maryland, sparked the "reconstitution" of nearly 100 failing schools (including the privatization of four schools in Baltimore) and caused principals to be promoted, transferred and fired. A handful of cheating scandals also marred the program.

Grasmick reminded the board yesterday that the journal Education Week had given Maryland the highest marks nationally for its testing program. "In two years," she said, "people will be weeping over the loss of MSPAP. Mark my words."

Among other accomplishments, she said, MSPAP has greatly increased the quality of student writing in Maryland.

State education officials have been negotiating with vendors on a new test that would be tailored to Maryland's learning standards. Nearly $7 million in federal money is available for the new assessment.

Grasmick said officials have been quiet about MSPAP's last stand because "we didn't want the critics to have one more chance to crow." Officials also said they didn't want to dampen enthusiasm over this year's tests, which each child in the third, fifth and eighth grade takes over about nine hours in late April and early May.

Already speaking in the past tense, educators and test experts were philosophical about MSPAP's fate.

"It was a good test for its time," said John F. "Jack" Jennings, head of a Washington education think tank who was chairman of a panel appointed by Grasmick to recommend school reforms in Maryland's next decade.

"But times have moved on. MSPAP couldn't meet the demands for individual results and, frankly, it couldn't meet the federal demand for more testing. It was too bulky and expensive."

Interim Carroll County schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said, "It is time to change. We need individual scores, and with individual scores we will be able to help individual students."

Said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association: "It [MSPAP] served its purpose at the time. It raised our awareness of what can and can't be done using assessment.

"Now we've got to take advantage of this transition to make sure we have an accountability system that's fair to both students and teachers."

Many of MSTA's 50,000 members had joined a growing chorus of opposition to MSPAP. Protests reached a peak early this year when state officials delayed release of MSPAP results pending an investigation of wildly fluctuating scores at some schools.

The testing battery got a clean bill of health, but the Montgomery County school board led a mini-revolt, calling on state officials to dump it.

Still, longtime MSPAP critics didn't want to get too excited about the demise of the test. They are already concerned about what will replace it.

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