MSPAP's death puts squeeze on officials


Test: Federal requirements force educators to scramble for a replacement examination.

April 28, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ON MARCH 22, the Maryland Department of Education sort of announced that MSPAP would die of unnatural causes after this spring's administration of the test.

Sort of, because the department wasn't eager for the news to get out.

The department put out a routine news release with this headline: "U.S. Officials Allow Local Systems Not Receiving Title I Aid for Middle Schools to Opt Out of Eighth Grade MSPAP This Year."

I vaguely remember seeing an electronic copy and clicking to something else after a couple of paragraphs. I'm one of 200 reporters and several hundred school principals on the state's mailing list, and apparently precious few of us bothered to read to the 28th line.

The U.S. Department of Education, it said, "requires Maryland to immediately begin development of a new test that will be administered beginning in the 2002-2003 school year to all students in grades three, five and eight."

In other words, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program was about to die.

As March turned to April at department headquarters on West Baltimore Street, Ronald A. Peiffer, chief spokesman for Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, waited for a flood of calls. None came.

State officials were in a quandary. They knew MSPAP wouldn't meet the requirements of the new No Child Left Behind Act and that the federal government wasn't about to grant waivers. The three years they thought they had for planning new tests was now four months.

At the same time, they knew publicity about MSPAP's demise before the final round of testing might cause big problems.

Grasmick and Peiffer decided not to lie or dissemble but to proceed quickly and quietly. They invited a nationally known testing expert, W. James Popham of the University of California, Los Angeles, to advise the state Board of Education at its April meeting.

Popham was halfway through a summary of a major report he helped draft, "Building Tests to Support Instruction and Accountability: A Guide for Policymakers." A commission of experts, he said, had come up with nine "requirements" of "responsible state assessment systems," and I was snoozing when Popham got to No. 7: "A state must generally allow test developers a minimum of three years to produce statewide tests that satisfy Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing and similar test-quality guidelines."

Grasmick sat straight up in her chair and woke me up. "But we don't have three years," she said. "We have to have tests by next May to replace MSPAP in grades three, five and eight."

This might be news breaking out, I thought.

Farewell, but perhaps not good riddance

Many teachers rejoiced upon hearing the news of MSPAP's demise, but it's a myth that the test was universally despised. Teachers are a thoughtful lot by nature, and their remarks to Sun reporters Wednesday and Thursday were extraordinarily thoughtful.

Most praised MSPAP for improving classroom instruction (particularly in writing) but added quickly that the test was of little use for measuring an individual pupil's strengths and weaknesses because from the start it assessed schools, not individuals. Only this year, one teacher said, were schools able to see data on individual children (and that data was denied their parents).

Mark Simon, president of the 11,000-member Montgomery County Education Association, said MSPAP "was not a perfect instrument, and it wasn't a test that did everything."

MSPAP did "revolutionize teaching," Simon said, "and in that sense it had just the opposite impact of the [statewide] test in Texas. That test served to dumb down instruction. MSPAP didn't do that. ... MSPAP captured some of the complexity of thinking, writing and problem-solving. It charted new territory boldly. I just hope they don't blow it with the new test."

The new test, Grasmick said last week, will be tailored to Maryland's learning standards, but there's no way it will have the Maryland imprint. It will be a commercial test, possibly from the Educational Testing Service (of SAT fame) or one of the three giant national test vendors.

MSPAP, by contrast, was as Maryland as crab cakes. It was designed largely by Maryland teachers and, until this last round of testing, scored by them.

A final thought on MSPAP: When the last test is taken in early May, why doesn't the state make public the Abell Foundation report of two years ago that savaged the test? State officials said they couldn't release the report because it refers to "live" test items that might be recycled.

But after next week, security isn't an issue.

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