Md. to give MSA, though results won't be used to gauge school progress

State believes it would be violating federal law if it stopped giving MSA, which doesn't align with new curriculum

September 16, 2013|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland wants to continue annual assessments of students this year at a cost of about $6 million, even though the scores wouldn't be used to gauge school progress — one of the main reasons for giving the tests.

State officials, in plans to be considered by the Maryland State Board of Education this month, said they would continue to give the Maryland School Assessments to comply with federal law. But, they said, the results won't provide reliable data for evaluating schools and teachers because the tests are geared to curriculum that's being phased out.

The new common core curriculum, launched this year in every public school in the state, won't have new assessments to match until the 2014-2015 school year. The state must field test the new assessments next year, and officials say they have chosen to do so on 50,000 students across the state — a small group of students in every elementary and middle school.

A Maryland teachers union is calling for a one-year moratorium on testing. And the National Education Association, another teachers union, said the focus during this year of transition should be on making sure teachers are prepared and getting enough support to teach the new curriculum rather than on testing.

"It doesn't make sense to give a test that you know is not aligned to what you are teaching because that is just a waste of everyone's time and, frankly, money," said Donna Harris-Aikens, the NEA's director for education practice and policy.

State officials say they must go forward with the MSA, given in math and reading to third- through eighth-graders, because annual state tests are required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Until Congress reauthorizes the law, said Jack Smith, the chief academic officer of the Maryland State Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Education has little choice but to enforce the provision.

"There will be some benefits that can be derived from the test," Smith said, though he acknowledged: "It is not a perfect situation or a particularly good situation to administer the MSA during this transition."

The timing issues have arisen as states struggle to put in place several reforms, including the common core, the new assessments and a new teacher evaluation system based on the new tests. Many states agreed to an aggressive timetable because they were trying to win federal dollars under an education reform competition called Race to the Top.

If given the go-ahead by the state board, Maryland officials would ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from some requirements under No Child Left Behind. First, state officials are asking for permission to forego giving the old Maryland State Assessment to the students who are taking the new test. Without the waiver, those students would have to take tests in March.

And because some students would be taking the news tests, state officials said they would have only partial data on student achievement in each school, so it would be unfair to use the test results to rank schools. Officials propose keeping in place the current rankings, called the School Progress Index, until schools can be evaluated under the new system.

Maryland also is seeking to delay tying a teacher's evaluation to test scores until next school year. Under a new system, as much as 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be tied to how much a student learns during a year.

Because the old tests are not measuring what is being taught, test scores are expected to go down next year — as they did this year.

So if the old tests aren't a good measure of student achievement and shouldn't be used to evaluate schools and teachers, some education leaders wonder why the old tests should be given.

California has decided to not test at all; other states have created interim tests.

"I would like to see states step up and say, "Wait a minute, is this really the right thing to do? Is it good to spend money on tests that aren't aligned and aren't going to give us the information we need?" said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association. "We remain opposed to giving the MSA next year."

Both the union, which represents most teachers in Maryland, and the superintendents association have come out in favor of a one-year moratorium on testing.

"This transition and lack of reliable testing data from the state has created great concerns for local superintendents who are trying to maintain and convey confidence in the quality of education that Maryland students are receiving," said Michael J. Martirano, superintendent of St. Mary's County Public Schools, and president of the Public School Superintendents' Association of Maryland.

But Smith, at the state department of education, said he believes MSA testing could still be useful in illuminating potential problems in teaching certain groups of students, including special education students or those for whom English is not their first language.

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