MSA test failing?

What do school scores mean?

July 05, 2011

The latest installment of Maryland School Assessment test results were released on the eve of the Fourth of July weekend, and school has been out for nearly a month, so it's hard to imagine very many people are paying close attention. 

The Maryland Department of Education is slated to release another round of test results, those for high school students, in the next few weeks during the height of vacation season.

The results released last week were for middle and elementary schools, and they showed four Harford County middle schools and two elementary schools are on the list of schools that need improvement.

Getting into the details of what constitutes a school in need of improvement is tedious and mind-numbing. It's not based straight up on how many students scored well on the test, but on how many more students from each school are doing better on the test than students at that school did last year, as the state and counties waltz their way toward a goal of having all students in the state make passing scores.

School scores are measured not based on how many students pass, but on whether a school made adequate yearly progress in having more students pass this year than last year.

This is fine for the students who already are doing well enough to pass, and for the teachers and administrators who are able to get a few more kids to pass in each passing year. Presumably, at the moment in the future when the standard measures whether kids are proficient rather than if a school has made adequate yearly progress, the system will be of some value.

Until then, however, it tends to cheapen the futures of the students most in need of help in the short term to allow school administrations to get their programs up to speed for teaching the hard to teach.

Granted, it's not an easy goal to meet. Getting kids from difficult home situations interested in math, science and English is no easy task. Still, this is one of the reasons we have public education, namely to make it possible for people from hardscrabble backgrounds to improve their lots in life.

So how does the MSA test fit into this vision for a more literate and logical student body for Maryland?  The answer is simple, but one whose implementation is complex: set a uniform standard based on a pass-fail standard and schools where more than a tiny percentage of students don't pass should be tagged as failing. Then identify the students in need of the most assistance, give it to them and get the numbers up statewide. This will have the benefit of giving students the mental wherewithal they'll need to survive in the free market.

Problems are:

--The schools where the need will be greatest are the schools where the political support for increased help (which invariably translates into increased money) is weakest;

--School administrators won't be warm to making any kind of immediate change;

These are the key issues that drive the public debate on public education. The issue boils down to: "I paid good money to buy a house in a good school district, so I want my tax money to go to the school where my kid is." It's a valid sentiment, and one that's easy to understand, but from a practical society-wide standpoint, it is a step in the direction of doing away with public, universal education and replacing it with a system of private schools. It's fine for those who can afford it, but what about the rest of us?

Perhaps, there's reason for a little optimism in Maryland. The presumptive State Superintendent For Life Nancy Grasmick recently retired after presiding over the state Department of Education even as governors have come and gone. Maybe someone new will be appointed who will help change the dynamic. And maybe Harford County's new partially-elected school board will also help shift the discussion locally.

Don't hold your breath, though.

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