Bye-bye, MSPAP, hello, MSA

March 05, 2003

THE MARYLAND School Performance Assessment Program, whose "Mizpap" acronym became a household word from Oakland to Ocean City, is officially retired. It has been replaced this week by the Maryland School Assessment (MSA), a six-hour battery of math and reading tests spread over four days in grades 3, 5 and 8 and reading only in grade 10. (Three more grades will be added later.)

MSA begins a new era of school testing in Maryland, one that's scheduled to last a dozen years. Year one is crucial because scores on the tests given this week will form the basis on which schools are required to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" through 2014. By then, under terms of the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, every student in Maryland is to be "proficient" in reading and mathematics. It's a lofty goal, one that no doubt will be adjusted as the years go by.

The new test is a much different animal from MSPAP. The MSA combines multiple-choice items with short written responses. MSPAP was all essays all the time. But the fundamental difference is that MSPAP could not measure the performance of individual students. By contrast, students (and, of course, their parents and teachers) will know next summer how well they did on the new tests -- and how well they did compared with a national sample of kids their age. That's a big improvement forced by the new federal law.

There's little of the hysteria that used to accompany the administration of MSPAP. Because it's the first year of MSA, teachers and principals are under no pressure to improve scores. Unfortunately, some would welcome mediocre results in this baseline testing so that progress would be easier to demonstrate later. For the same reason, Maryland officials will be pressured to set a low "proficient" score when they take on that all-important task next summer.

In a decade of MSPAP, Maryland admirably refused to lower standards, and it should maintain that tradition, even though No Child Left Behind actually punishes states for having higher standards. At least two states have consequently lowered standards, despite warnings from Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Transition to a new test also gives the state Department of Education an opportunity to make its assessment program less secretive and more understandable. MSPAP had been cloaked in such secrecy that you would have thought it was drafted by the National Security Agency. Now parents will get more information about their children's results. And the Education Department is disclosing more information about the tests' contents. With the glaring exception of 10th-grade reading, sample MSA questions and answers were posted on the state Education Department's Web site so kids and their teachers could prepare for this week.

So sayonara, MSPAP. Welcome, MSA. May you truly leave no child behind.

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