Final MSPAP testing largely goes as usual

School absenteeism low, but storm damage, death of boy delay some exams

April 30, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Despite some school officials' fears that pupils might not take the final round of MSPAP tests seriously, the exams began yesterday much like the previous nine times that Maryland pupils took the tests.

Attendance and morale were high, officials said.

"This is dead serious. It is business as usual," said Peggy Brown, principal of Baltimore's Franklin Square Elementary School. "The idea that it is not serious has not been communicated to us."

Knowing that the next two weeks mark the final administration of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams seemed to give principals and teachers a chance to reflect on how the tests have changed schools.

"For some reason, I feel a more relaxed attitude this year than ever before," said Rocco Ferretti, principal of Bodkin Elementary School in Pasadena.

Some pupils asked about the future of the test, Ferretti said, and he told them this was MSPAP's last hurrah. "They seemed OK with it," he said.

The only disruption of the testing was in school systems affected by Sunday night's tornadoes and severe weather, where officials moved quickly to juggle their exam schedules.

In Charles County - hardest hit by the storms - this week's testing will be put off until next week, state officials said yesterday. Next week's exams will be given the week of May 13.

Calvert County schools held classes but delayed the exams, largely because confusion over whether schools were open led to low attendance. Instead, the third-grade exam will be given over four days instead of five.

"Nobody here was going to blow off the test," said Carol Reid, Calvert's assistant superintendent for instruction. "This is an important tool for us, and we want our children to be here for it."

The MSPAP exams also weren't given yesterday at Edmondson Heights Elementary in Baltimore County. An 8-year-old boy who attended the school was stabbed to death in Philadelphia over the weekend, and officials brought in a crisis team, said the school's assistant principal Barbara A. Davis. Pupils will take the tests originally scheduled for yesterday today, in addition to those that were already slated.

Last week, Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said officials would end the MSPAP tests this spring and come up with a replacement by the fall.

The exams - given each spring to third-, fifth-, and eighth-graders - have been the centerpiece of Maryland's school accountability effort, often heralded as a national model.

Unlike traditional standardized tests of basic skills, MSPAP tests call for pupils to apply knowledge by working in groups and then individually, writing long essays for answers. The tests are not designed to judge individual pupils, but to measure the effectiveness of schools as a whole. Test results have driven major changes in instruction - pushing teachers to focus on ensuring that their pupils can apply basic skills to complex real-world problems.

While many educators have praised how classrooms have changed, there has also been a steady drumbeat of resistance among some parents and other critics who question whether more emphasis should be placed on testing basic skills and knowledge of facts.

More recently, some systems have questioned the mechanics - how the tests are graded and how scores are compared from year to year.

State officials say they're being pushed to switch from the MSPAP exams by President Bush's new federal education laws, which require individual reading and math testing in grades three through eight. Because MSPAP doesn't produce reliable individual scores - and because the results take six months or more to come back to schools - the exams don't meet the new standards, officials say.

As a concession to the coming changes, the eighth-grade exams were made optional for many school systems. Twelve of Maryland's 24 systems are giving the test this month.

But the timing of last week's announcement from Grasmick prompted concern from some local and state educators about how schools would treat this final round of testing.

"I think there was a fear that people might not take seriously the MSPAP," said Charlene Cooper Boston, an area executive officer in the city schools. But she said that didn't seem to happen, with principals reporting low absentee rates.

In Harford County, attendance at the 32 elementary schools was good, and the mood was positive, officials said.

Gerard A. Mack, principal of Jarrettsville Elementary, the county's top overall performer for the past several years, said, "Our teachers felt as though nothing was out of the ordinary. Everybody was upbeat, and everything went fine. They want to go out on an up-note," he said.

At Grasonville Elementary School in Queen Anne's County, Principal Lawrence Dunn said he got worried Friday when he heard the news. But only two of 60 third-graders were out sick and one child's parents kept her home because they felt the exam is too stressful.

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