Md. to Phase Out Innovative Testing Program

By David J. Hoff — April 03, 2002 6 min read
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Maryland students will be setting aside test tubes and picking up No. 2 pencils when they take state tests, starting next year.

After a decade of eschewing multiple-choice questions in favor of essays, laboratory reports, and mathematical reasoning, the state will move toward traditional testing practices that cover a breadth of material and are easy to score.

The changes will allow the state to rate individual students’ abilities, rather than the school-by-school results it now reports for 3rd, 5th, and 8th graders. The new approach will fulfill requirements of the new federal education law, but it also reflects pressure from local school leaders and parents who want to know exactly how each child is performing on state tests.

“After 10 years, this was the right transition to make,” said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s superintendent of schools. “It was clearly the next step in our assessment system.”

The changes, while more dramatic in Maryland than in other states, show that the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 will have a significant impact on state testing systems throughout the country, possibly pushing many states toward the norm-referenced tests that are quick and easy to administer and score.

But the impending demise of the current Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, is also due to political forces beyond the new federal requirements, its supporters say. Since its debut in 1990, local officials have complained that the program takes nine hours of testing over the course of a week, but fails to tell them how well each student is achieving across the whole curriculum.

Even if the new federal law had not forced the state into making changes, public pressure to deliver individual test scores “probably would have,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Maryland board of education from 1994 through 1997.

The law “has accelerated the process, though,” added Mr. Cross, now a senior fellow at the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that supports standards and testing initiatives.

“The most important issue was that the federal government itself moved to individual scores,” said Reginald M. Felton, the president of the school board for the state’s Montgomery County district and a critic of the testing program.

Ms. Grasmick said state officials would have a replacement test ready by next spring. The test will include multiple-choice questions and as many performance-based tasks as time and money permit, she said.

“We don’t want the new assessment to simply be: Take the number-two pencil and shade in the right answer,” she said. “We’ll be able to do better than that.”

But faced with constraints on testing time and a need to cover the curriculum, the state won’t be able to rely on its trademark tasks that reflect student work.

To design a test in the style of the Maryland program and expect it to deliver individual scores “would take a ton of time and a ton of money,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy.

A Different Era

Maryland unveiled the MSPAP in 1993. At the time, states were beginning to align their testing systems to measure how well schools were performing against a set of content standards. Back then, the debate centered on the quality of education offered to students, and experts in educational measurement were experimenting with innovative ways to determine that.

To gauge school performance, the MSPAP gives portions of tests to every student in a school. While one student takes the geometry segment of the 8th grade mathematics test, for example, another might be answering algebra questions.

And the tests avoid the fill-in-the bubble multiple-choice test forms that are common in state testing programs. On science exams, for instance, a group of students performs experiments detailed in the test booklet, and then answers questions based on the data collected.

Under the current system, every 3rd, 5th, and 8th grader in the state takes a portion of the exams in reading, language usage, writing, mathematics, science, and, social studies. But because students take only parts of the complete test in each subject, it doesn’t collect enough data to report a score for each student.

Information Lacking

Although the state has given a nationally norm-referenced test to 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders over the history of the MSPAP, those scores don’t give the information school officials need about students’ achievement, according to critics of the state’s testing policies. Norm-referenced tests measure how well students perform compared with their peers.

“In order to help drive achievement for every child, you have to have reporting at that [individual] level,” said Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 137,000-student Montgomery County schools. “And you have to have instruments that are tied to curriculum,” he added.

The phaseout of the current assessment system will start this spring. The U.S. Department of Education is allowing most of the state’s middle schools to opt out of the testing program for 8th graders. Districts that spend federal Title I money in middle schools must give the tests to 8th graders to comply with the 1994 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

That law, many of whose provisions states still must meet during the transition to the revised ESEA, requires testing at least once in middle schools that receive money from the program for disadvantaged students.

Eight of Maryland’s 24 districts will be required to participate in testing. Others will be allowed to opt out. The state will give the current test to all 3rd and 5th graders this year. But the new test will be given to students in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades next spring. Those pilot tests will collect individual scores, but the results won’t be reported because they first must be analyzed to ensure the test’s validity.

Staying Power

By 2006, the state will have tests for every grade from 3rd through 8th, ensuring that Maryland will comply with the testing requirements in the new federal law, which reauthorized Title I and many other K-12 programs.

While the MSPAP’s change in focus marks the end of an era, the testing program managed to last a decade—longer than any other such test—and to have a significant impact on instruction.

Maryland hired teachers to score the tests, giving them the opportunity to see what kind of student work the state expected of students. They often changed the way they taught to include more performance-driven tasks in their classrooms, as architects of the testing program had hoped.

“It’s easy to visualize what high performance looks like,” said William D. Schafer, a professor emeritus of measurement, statistics, and evaluation at the University of Maryland College Park and the state’s testing director from 1997 to 1999. “It’s very difficult to visualize what high performance looks like in a multiple-choice format.”

Other states’ attempts at such tests failed almost from the start. In California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill in 1994 to continue development of the California Learning Assessment System, a program that included the same approach as the MSPAP.

“More than anything, no individual scores really set off the governor,” said Maureen DiMarco, Mr. Wilson’s education secretary at the time and now a vice president for the Houghton Mifflin Co., a Boston-based publisher of textbooks and testing products.

“The fundamental issue is parents want to know how their kids are doing,” she added. “There’s nothing stunning about the story [in Maryland], except maybe how long the test held up.”

Any similar state test is unlikely to last much longer under the new federal testing requirements, according to Brian Gong, the associate director of the Center for Assessment, a Portsmouth, N.H., nonprofit group that consults with states about testing.

Not only does the reauthorized ESEA require states to provide individual scores, he said, it also compels them to return students’ results before the end of the school year. To accomplish that turnaround, tests will have to rely on questions that can be graded quickly, often ruling out long essays, extended mathematical responses, and other hallmarks of the current Maryland program.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as Md. to Phase Out Innovative Testing Program


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