Hairston says test guidelines were met

Balto. Co. schools chief plays down MSA error in e-mail to principals

March 07, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

A day after his spokesman publicly acknowledged error, Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston told principals privately yesterday that the school system didn't do anything wrong when administering the Maryland School Assessment tests.

Hairston sent an e-mail saying the school system followed Maryland State Department of Education guidelines even though it ordered teachers to not read test questions to special education students who are required by federal law to get that help.

"Some questions have been raised about the administration of the MSA. The Baltimore County Public Schools administered the MSA appropriately and in accordance with MSDE protocols," Hairston wrote.

Before this week's testing, state education officials made clear in several letters, phone calls and workshops for school systems that teachers must read the questions to the special needs students. Every other school district in Maryland complied. MSDE has directed county school officials to correct their testing mistake and retrain all staff.

On Wednesday, Douglas J. Neilson, a Baltimore County schools spokesman, publicly acknowledged that the school system made a mistake by not complying with the order. "We made a mistake," he said.

Hairston said yesterday in a telephone interview that the school system administered the MSAs correctly for the most part, and he didn't want his internal e-mail to alarm the vast majority of school system employees who have been following state guidelines with nearly all students.

He acknowledged the system made a mistake, and he emphasized that it was making plans to retrain staff, preparing to discipline those responsible and making sure that special education students taking next week's Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills get reading help if they are supposed to have it.

"It's like an orchestra, you correct the player with the instrument that is out of tune. We will correct the one player who is out of tune," he said.

Hairston and his staff spent the day talking with state education officials and reassuring them they would correct the mistake.

"We had every indication from them that they were going to correct the problem," said Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent.

Gary Heath, the acting assistant state superintendent for testing, attributed the error to the typical "glitches" that accompany the introduction of a new test.

The mistake on the reading portion of the MSA, the state's new standardized tests given to third, fifth, eighth and 10th-graders this year, affected hundreds of students with autism, traumatic brain injuries and other problems that cause them to read well below grade level.

These students have individual education plans (IEPs) requiring they receive reading help on tests and during their daily instruction. IEPs have the effect of federal law.

MSDE repeatedly told local school systems that they should read the MSAs to these students, even third-graders whose scores would be invalidated because their tests measured reading comprehension.

But as late as Feb. 28, Baltimore County school officials were barring teachers from providing the reading help. At a meeting for principals the day before, Paul Mazza, the system's director of testing, reiterated that order, principals said. "Let me make it clear for you," one principal, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, quoted him saying.

Mazza, who also sent memos to school system educators Feb. 24 and Feb. 26 saying the IEP students couldn't get reading help on the tests, could face disciplinary action for his role, said school officials, who also requested anonymity. He did not return calls seeking comment, and schools officials said any discipline would be a confidential personnel matter.

Donald L. Arnold, the school board president, said the mistake was an understandable misinterpretation of ambiguous state guidelines on a new test.

"It's unfortunate that it has occurred, but looking over the information the state has sent out, and considering other things, I think it's a situation where the state wasn't clear what it wanted and people making interpretations where there is ambiguity," he said.

However, the MSDE letter was explicit: "The [reading] accommodation must also be provided to that [special needs] student for state testing purposes." The word "must" was underlined and in boldface.

Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, also described the mistake as "unfortunate," but said it was no "big thing."

Hairston e-mailed his "Emergent Superintendent's Bulletin" to principals yesterday morning. He never referred to the improper testing as a mistake, instead calling it an "issue." And he said the problem applied "only" to a small number of students taking the reading portion of the standardized tests.

Some parents interpreted the superintendent's e-mail to mean that the district's public professions of regret were merely lip service.

"If they want to encourage the public to have confidence in them and believe in them and trust them, this is not helping. If you make a mistake, own up to it," said Mary Pat Kahle, a Timonium parent who has children with special needs.

Teresa K. LaMaster, a Catonsville parent and special education advocate, said the e-mail didn't reflect a system avoiding responsibility so much as one that plays down the importance of children with special needs.

"That sends a message that they don't want to send. It sends a message that these kids - and the achievement of these kids - are not important to how we think about the overall scores of the Baltimore County public schools," she said.

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