Md. teachers look to new test, try to stir interest in MSPAP

Officials fear students might not be serious in taking exam next week

April 26, 2002|By Mike Bowler and Erika Niedowski | Mike Bowler and Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

While Maryland teachers pondered life without MSPAP yesterday, state education officials scrambled to reassure families that doing well on next week's final round of state tests is important.

News that the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program was coming to an end after 10 years prompted fears in some quarters that children would not take seriously the last MSPAP tests that begin Monday.

Several officials said the timing of reports on schools Superintendent Nancy G. Grasmick's remarks Wednesday signaling the end of MSPAP could not have been worse.

"Our kids are starting the thing in three days," said Lenore Chapman, principal of Chatsworth School in Reisterstown. "I don't know with what seriousness our parents are going to take it."

To calm such fears, Grasmick issued a midday statement yesterday emphasizing "the value and importance" of the test.

"We will be able to connect the results of this year's MSPAP with the results" of the test that will replace it next spring, Grasmick said. "Schools will be able to continue to track their progress toward the same rigorous standards that have been in place over the past several years."

Grasmick told the State Board of Education on Wednesday that the state must come up with a new test by September.

Officials in Montgomery County were pleased yesterday. After a drop in their scores in 2001, they led a revolt against MSPAP and urged Grasmick to scrap the test.

But Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said yesterday that he and his colleagues are "taking [MSPAP] seriously."

"We expect everyone to come out and do their best," he said. "We're getting important data from this year's test."

In schools around the state there was a mixture of joy and regret - even a touch of nostalgia as the test whose nickname, Mizpap, has become a Maryland household word, headed for its last stand.

"For many of us, it feels like the end of a relationship," said Fran Glick, librarian at Wellwood International Elementary School in Pikesville. "Ten years is a long time to be involved."

Teachers at her school "are rejoicing," Glick said, although many have mixed emotions. On the one hand, she said, MSPAP has improved instruction. On the other, teachers haven't been able to use the data generated by the test to diagnose individual students.

"Much of what we got back was useless," she said.

Mercedes-quality test

"I will miss" MSPAP, said Gail Kearson-Gough, a lead teacher at Franklin Square Elementary in Baltimore, which remained open over spring break in March so third- and fifth-graders could spend more time preparing for MSPAP.

"We have to prepare our children to be thinkers, and MSPAP does that."

Kearson-Gough, the school's MSPAP coordinator, compared the test to a Mercedes in a world of off-the-shelf commercial achievement tests that are more like Chevettes.

"Now we're going to a car in between that may be a Camry," she said.

Cockeysville Middle School teacher K. Michael Freye, who has spent his summers scoring MSPAP, said the test has improved instruction, but he expects its replacement to be a much better assessment tool.

His eighth-grade social studies students, Freye said, know MSPAP assesses the performance of schools, not of individuals. This makes it difficult to inspire them to do well, he said.

Similar sentiment came from Mary E. Dix, an eighth-grade teacher at Oklahoma Road Middle School in Eldersburg. "Some of our general concerns are accountability with the students, who say, `If this isn't going to count on report cards, why should we care?'" she said.

Dix added, "Parents want feedback on how their kids are doing in relation to other kids in school."

Mark Conrad, a former Baltimore middle school teacher now directing instruction at the Crossroads School, a new independently run city school that will open next fall, said he had a "love-hate relationship" with MSPAP. He is among many anxious to get a look at its replacement.

"I'm afraid that the focus of the new test won't be on improving instruction, and that's what I saw as the benefit of MSPAP," Conrad said.

Federal standards

Maryland was forced to switch tests by the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January by President Bush. The law requires reading and math testing of all children in grades three through eight. Individual scores must be available, and test results from any year must be published before the next school year; MSPAP met neither requirement.

Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent who has done preliminary work on the new test, said it will probably consist of a mix of short essay responses and multiple-choice answers that can be machine-scored.

"No one wants to give up constructive responses," said Peiffer, referring to essay answers, "but the tasks on the new test won't be as complicated as those on MSPAP."

Peiffer said all of public education's "stakeholders," including parents and teachers, will be consulted in the test selection process.

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