No time to nap after MSPAP

The Education Beat

Testing: Some hope the exam's successor leaves more time for fun, but studies show the basics can't be ignored.

August 21, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BACK TO school for 53,501 Maryland teachers, and what's new is already laid to rest.

For the first time in more than a decade, there will be no Maryland School Performance Assessment Program hanging over teachers and principals like the sword of Damocles. In fact, for a few days until state Education Department officials announce a new test - they're in the final stages of the selection process - there won't even be a MSPAP successor to worry about, at least in elementary and middle schools.

State officials, of course, will say that instructional goals aren't changed, that the standards underlying MSPAP must be met and that the new test, a commercial product tailored to Maryland's curriculum, will simply take up where MSPAP left off last spring. They'll even say that their testing experts can "equate" scores on the new test with those of MSPAP, so that the transition will be seamless.

But the teachers I've talked to this summer couldn't be happier. It's not that they plan to slack off. Rather, they hope to widen instruction to art and music, for example, spending less time on those skills tested by MSPAP. And they anticipate a new test that will consume less time each spring. Montgomery County kids, for horrid example, take 50 hours of standardized tests a year, according to a new and provocative book, What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in School? by Susan Ohanian.

Ohanian, a former teacher, writes that "standardistas" and "testocrats" are in control of the public schools and that even preschool children are feeling the stress of academic demands. Sacrificed in the process, she says, are the things and practices that make childhood fun: recess, art, music, even being read to by the teacher.

True, kindergartens these days teach fewer of the "skills" Robert Fulghum related in his wonderful All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: share, play fair, clean up your own mess, say you're sorry, flush. But the many kindergartens and first grades I've seen in recent years are a far cry from the gardens of angst portrayed by Ohanian.

Nor do those who say we're taking the play out of kindergarten address one of the toughest challenges in education: what to do about the dramatic academic discrepancy between middle-class and poor children when they enter school.

Example: A checklist of kindergarten "standards" posted on the Baltimore schools Web site begins with "recognize own first name." I had barely stopped chortling from my middle-class perch when a city teacher set me straight: Many, many city kids, she said, show up for kindergarten not knowing their first name, let alone how to write it. Or consider this research finding cited recently by Grover Whitehurst, assistant U.S. secretary of education: 3-year-olds from some affluent families have larger spoken vocabularies than parents from welfare families.

Big cities fail first test of school transfer act

If the behavior of local school officials in the first test of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is any indication, we're in for a rough ride.

The officials were supposed to identify Title I schools with two or more consecutive years of failure and allow parents to transfer their kids to better schools this fall - with transportation paid by the district.

Across the nation, one district after another delayed until late summer, couldn't find enough seats, made application for transfers difficult and generally sabotaged the law. The result is that thousands of kids who could be enrolling this month in better schools are still mired in the failures.

The big cities were the worst offenders, partly because they have huge numbers of kids in lagging schools: 120,000 in 177 Philadelphia schools, for example.

Chicago placed its best schools off limits. A district in Georgia said it wouldn't bus kids but would pay parents' carfare. This eliminated families with no cars or work schedules that wouldn't allow them to drive their children to school.

Baltimore parents had to submit two documents, a "parent choice transfer option form" and a "student transfer application." Here were the directions for that form: "Complete sections 1 through 14. The pupil identification number for section 7 can be located on the back of [schools chief] Carmen Russo's letter. To complete section 11, use the school number from the list on the back of this application. Your child's current principal must sign section 15 and return form to you. It is your responsibility to forward the applications to the Office of Student Placement by August 1, 2002."

A nice, friendly note. Of 30,000 students eligible for transfers, parents of 347 applied for the 194 seats officials could find. They were filled by lottery.

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