New law shifts test focus onto all pupils

MSPAP: State's program ends as educators rush to create a replacement.

May 05, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Good riddance to bad rubbish, crowed the ardent critics of MSPAP when they heard that this year's round of testing - which ends this week - would be the last for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

In some schools, teachers hugged and cheered. There would be no more pressure to ratchet up those scores, they said, no more "teaching to the test." Maybe now our kids will learn something.

Some parents were equally thrilled. "I stand tall at the precipice of a new horizon," one longtime Baltimore County activist said in a letter to The Sun. At last, she said, Maryland schools would be "focusing on the academic achievement of individual students."

But some experts warn that the MSPAP critics should be careful what they wish for: The bad rubbish of MSPAP could be replaced by worse rubbish in a new testing program forced on Maryland by the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January by President Bush.

States are just now scrambling to design the new tests required by the 1,200-page law, sometimes jokingly called No Tree Left Standing. Most have until 2005, but Maryland must replace MSPAP next spring.

There's no shortage of advice on how to build tests to meet the new requirements. Companies are vying for the expected $300 million in new exams the law will require. (Only 17 states or territories have testing programs that meet the law's many requirements.)

And the law includes tough penalties for slackers. "For the 50 percent of the nation's schools that receive Title I aid, the penalties [for missing deadlines] are ... severe," says a guide privately published last week. "The bill really means what it says: No child will be left behind."

The law requires all states to bring all students up to the "proficient" level on state tests in 12 years. Schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years will be identified as "needing improvement" and could eventually be penalized.

State test planners are finding the "adequate yearly progress" requirement a nightmare. Known as AYP, it applies to all children all the time, points out Harvard University testing researcher Daniel Koretz. That means children of differing backgrounds - African-American, white and low-income kids - all must progress at the same rate.

"That's just absurd," says Koretz. "What they've done has removed all human judgment."

One estimate is that if the AYP requirement had been in place in Maryland from 1998 to 2000, as many as half of the state's 1,137 elementary and middle schools would have been on the failing list. That compares with about 100 schools statewide declared "reconstitution-eligible" in the 10 years of MSPAP.

MSPAP had to be ditched because it was never designed to assess individual students. Starting with the new test next spring, parents and teachers will be able to diagnose Jane's and Johnny's educational strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly.

"That's as it should be," says Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent who is heavily involved in planning the new test. But Peiffer points out there will be consequences for teachers, too.

During MSPAP's 10-year existence, accountability stopped at the schoolhouse door, and principals took much of the praise or blame if a school's scores shot up or plummeted. (Indeed, successful schools got cash awards.) But with the new test, says Peiffer, "accountability goes down to the classroom teacher."

For better or worse, Mrs. Jones' kids' scores can be compared with Mrs. Smith's, and the day may come when test scores are used to evaluate - maybe even reward or punish - teacher performance.

What will the new test look like? "Nothing like MSPAP," says Koretz. MSPAP was the only pure performance test left in the nation. Children in the third, fifth and eighth grades answered questions or performed tasks using essays. The problem-solving, performance nature of the test was said to require "higher-order thinking skills."

Peiffer says MSPAP's successor will mix the "constructed response" answers - essays and the like - of MSPAP with multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions so familiar to older generations. It will be tailored to Maryland's learning standards - the same standards that drove MSPAP. And it will be cheaper because much of it can be scored by machine.

Test experts say there is no opposite of higher-order thinking, no lower-order thinking that is somehow inferior. They say high-quality, challenging tests can be built around multiple-choice and other objective questions, but they have grave doubts that Maryland can do it in the year allowed by U.S. Department of Education officials.

"Typically, what results when there's not sufficient time to do a quality job is a test that doesn't serve the purpose it's intended to serve," says Joan Herman, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, based in Los Angeles.

One of the biggest challenges for Maryland will be "aligning" the new test with what's taught in the schools. That task is fraught with peril, says Patricia A. Foerster, president of the 50,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association.

Foerster worries that curriculum statewide could be reduced to what's tested. And she says the pressure on teachers that characterized MSPAP in its later years could be transferred to the new test.

Says Foerster: "We must never again allow ourselves to be so totally focused on the numbers that we lose track of the purpose of testing - to improve instruction."

Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a consortium of Southern and border states, says he's watched MSPAP from birth to death. "I'm an optimist," he says. "No Child Left Behind is on the books for all the right reasons. There's lots of red tape and some absurdities, but I think the country - and Maryland - can handle it."

Mike Bowler writes on education for The Sun.

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