Controversy Surrounds Release Of Maryland Test Results

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After a two-month delay for experts to vet some surprising ups and downs in the most recent state-test results, Maryland officials last week gave the scores a clean bill of health and released them.

Nancy S. Grasmick

But the move did not put an end to the controversy surrounding the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, which this year saw a three- fold increase in the number of schools with drops of 10 or more percentage points on their average composite scores. The superintendent of the state's largest district continued last week to publicly cast doubt on the validity of the results, marking the first time that local officials have criticized the 10- year-old program.

Meanwhile, Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick pointed to the stagnation of test scores as evidence that the state needs to move on a new round of proposed reforms, including the introduction of a statewide curriculum, a boost in school spending directed largely to disadvantaged students, and the means to put more teachers with experience in low-performing schools.

She also announced that the tests would be overhauled so that individual scores can be generated, as required under the newly reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Several recent reviews of the program by the state have made similar suggestions for revamping the tests.

"We can make tremendous strides in our second decade of education reform if we take advantage of the opportunity we have right now," Ms. Grasmick said in an address to the state board of education last week.

Overall performance on the tests, which have won national recognition because they require students to apply knowledge in complex ways, climbed steadily until 1998 and then leveled off. The May 2001 results show that about 44 percent of elementary and middle school students scored at the "satisfactory" level, a drop of roughly 1 percentage point from the year before.

The tests are given in six subjects every spring to 3rd, 5th, and 8th graders. Designed to measure the effectiveness of schools rather than individual achievement, the tests call for students to sometimes work in groups and to write out answers. High-scoring schools are eligible for cash rewards, while repeatedly low-scoring ones face state intervention.

Local Concerns

Montgomery County, the state's largest district with 130,000 students, was the first to raise the alarm about the scores. The percentage of students in the district just outside Washington scoring at a satisfactory level dipped last year to 51 percent, about 4 percentage points lower than the year before.

But state officials have stressed that the margin of error for the scores ranges from 2 percentage points for the state to as many as 14 percentage points for a small school.

They have also suggested that the lack of test-score increases may be linked to the fact that schools across the state have more disadvantaged students and fewer experienced teachers.

But Montgomery County education officials say none of those factors explains the drop in scores they saw among many of their 118 elementary schools, and particularly at some of those long known for top performance. For instance, the district boasts 20 schools that have been designated National Blue Ribbon winners, and 15 of them posted declines.

Vol. 21, Issue 21, Page 19

Published in Print: February 6, 2002, as Controversy Surrounds Release Of Maryland Test Results
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