Brief assessment of Assessment

THE EDUCATION BEAT

Primer: Everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, about the state's new standardized test.

October 06, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THEY'VE CUT the name of Maryland's new school test from five words to three and the total time of testing from nine hours to six.

But slimmer won't make the Maryland School Assessment less formidable, say state officials, who insist it will be a worthy successor to the dearly departed Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

They're still building the MSA, but here are answers to some of the questions you wanted to ask but didn't, for fear of drowning in the Sea of Psychometric Babble.

When will the MSA be given and who will take it?

The test will be taken in March by children in grades three, five, eight (math and reading) and 10 (reading only). Grades four, six and seven will be added by 2005 to comply with the new federal No Child Left Behind Act.

How much time will the testing take?

Ninety minutes a day for four days; that's three hours each for reading and math. MSPAP required about nine hours over five days, testing six subject areas.

What will the test be like?

It will contain two tests, yielding two sets of scores. One, consisting primarily of multiple-choice questions, is called a norm-referenced test. It's designed to compare Maryland kids with a national sample of test-takers. Scores are expressed as a national percentile rank. For example, kids at the 60th percentile have scored as well or better than 60 percent of the national sample.

The other test, called criterion-referenced, measures students' performance against Maryland learning standards. This test will require more short-essay responses and will be used exclusively as Maryland's measure of accountability. Scores on this test will be expressed as basic, proficient or advanced, with basic the lowest score possible.

Officials hope to release the results of both tests at the same time - and to do it much faster than they were able to release MSPAP scores. Next year, results will be released in late summer, but in subsequent years, they will be released a couple of months after the MSA has been administered.

How will the tests be graded?

The multiple-choice test will be machine-scored. Two graders hired and trained by the testing companies will grade each of the short-essay answers, which the test people call constructed response. This procedure replaces the elaborate - and expensive - scoring of MSPAP, which was done by moonlighting Maryland teachers during the summers.

Who is selling the tests, and how much will they cost?

State school officials negotiated for months and finally settled on two of the largest national test vendors, CTB/McGraw-Hill, which will develop the math tests, and Harcourt Educational Measurement, which will provide the reading tests.

The cost will be about $16 per student in math and $14 in reading (which will have more multiple-choice questions). The total, as approved by the state Board of Public Works on Sept. 18, will be $53 million over four years. More than half of it will be borne by the federal government. MSPAP's cost was about $35 a student, but the state paid every dime.

I thought No Child Left Behind requires a science test, too.

It does, and state officials hope to have one in place by mid-decade. So far, they've been disappointed by the commercial science tests they've examined. Science will be tested in grades three, five and eight without lengthening the total testing time. That will be quite a trick.

Isn't there danger when the companies that produce many of the textbooks used in Maryland schools also sell the official state tests?

These are huge companies, and spokespeople say there's a "firewall" between their textbook and testing divisions. And the standards by which test-takers will be judged, in part, are those of the Maryland curriculum, not a textbook series.

What will happen to the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills?

It will bite the dust after one last stand in the spring.

Why did they shorten the title?

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick knew MSA would become a part of the state's lexicon, but she didn't want another acronym like MSPAP.

Besides, if they'd called it the Maryland School Assessment Program, the acronym would have been perilously close to "mishap."

The rightful initiator of initiative is identified

Wednesday's column said that Montgomery County's highly successful "kindergarten initiative" had been launched by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's predecessor, Paul L. Vance. Weast, through a spokesman, was quick to point out that the program was started by his administration and differs in major aspects from Vance's efforts to improve the education of Montgomery's youngest children. I regret the error.

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