April 29, 2002

AND SO the end is finally at hand. After 10 years, hundreds of thousands of exams given and graded, and almost constant bickering, the last round of our state's groundbreaking public school testing program opens today.

Whether anyone will take seriously this lame-duck exercise over the next two weeks -- for all of the state's third- and fifth-graders and a minority of its eighth-graders -- is an open question. A more far-reaching one is whether we've learned any lessons from Maryland's decade-long dance with enforcing standards and accountability through MSPAP, the acronym for the ponderously named Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

The proximate cause of MSPAP's demise was the Bush administration's sweeping move to force states to test children in grades three to eight to produce individual results, which happened to coincide with the recommendations of a state panel; MSPAP yields only school averages. It also didn't help that statewide performance on the tests had leveled out the last few years, with significant drops last year in most places -- including powerful Montgomery County, where top local school officials led the way in knifing MSPAP.

But the seeds of MSPAP's demise were planted long before by the state's long-running failure to explain to parents and even many teachers what exactly students were learning in the name of these tests. Even as MSPAP sings its swan song, it's hard to find two people outside the state bureaucracy who can give consistent, understandable explanations of what it purported to teach and test.

Yes, we know the whole program was heavily influenced by business leaders' desire for high-school graduates who could work together and express themselves. We know that as MSPAP more and more became the law for our schools, pupils spent more and more time writing, learning the differences between, say, "writing to inform" and "writing to persuade." And we know that state educators held countless "MSPAP nights" at schools around Maryland, where they walked parents through problem-solving exercises -- much like the ones third-graders faced on the tests when they had to hypothesize, observe and then write about what happens to a celery stalk left overnight in a glass of red-dyed water, and why.

But MSPAP's curriculum was more implied than spelled out and too often promulgated after the fact by knee-jerk reactions to poor test scores. And those parent nights seemed like so many magic shows, wherein members of awed audiences nervously took the stage to pull rabbits from hats. In essence, parents were invited to taste the test but not really know it.

To be fair, MSPAP can claim tremendous achievements -- in firmly establishing in Maryland the notions of standards, of accountability through testing, and of giving schools, not students, grades. Before MSPAP, who had ever heard of the very good idea of reacting to student failure by giving the adults in charge an "F" and threatening to take over their schools?

The state also struck a bold line in developing its own performance-oriented tests, relatively sophisticated instruments that had pupils working in small groups, stressed writing in every subject and tried to measure higher-order thinking. Of course, for many parents raised on more traditional multiple-choice tests, these exams seemed arcane and way too open to subjective interpretation.

But that was then, and right now we have a new statewide curriculum and a new test in the works -- and a new chance for state education officials to bring parents thoroughly into the job of deciding and understanding what their children will be taught. State educators vow that this new curriculum will be much more defined than anything schools have ever had from the state and that these new tests will be much more traditional, focus much more on knowing certain content, and provide individual results that could be used for remediation.

Compared with MSPAP, all this ought to be a much easier sell to parents and teachers. But starting right now, if the state doesn't make the whole process much more transparent -- by making sure that the new curriculum and tests are widely and well understood -- then one of MSPAP's main lessons will not have been learned, and one of its main failures will persist.

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