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Maryland teachers recommend testing change

November 14, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Five years after its debut, teachers continue to have deep concerns with the test Maryland officials use to evaluate the performance of schools.

The Maryland State Teachers Association last week released a report containing 11 recommendations teachers say will improve the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test.

"We continue to believe that MSPAP can be improved without harming its overall value," teachers union President Karl Pence said in a statement.

While noting there has been progress in the five years since state officials began counting test results, the report contends that there are still flaws and that the test should not be the sole basis of evaluating the quality of education in schools.

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Recommendations include changing the format of the testing, addressing the impact of absent or new students on test results and releasing test results to schools more quickly.

Sharon Chirgott, president of the Washington County Teachers Association, said teachers are concerned that some of the material on the test is not appropriate for the grades it is used in.

"That's voiced by almost every teacher in the county who is connected to the testing in any way," she said.

The MSPAP test was designed to give state officials a better way to measure the performance of individual schools. It coincided with an overhaul of the curriculum in the early 1990s.

Each May, third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students take weeklong tests that measure their performance in reading, writing, language use, math, social studies and science.

Students answer the questions with short written answers or essays. Often, they are asked to perform tasks, such as to interpret and display results from a science experiment.

The Maryland Department of Education uses the results to evaluate which schools are meeting the state's curriculum goals and which are not. High-performing schools are eligible for financial rewards, while schools that perform poorly can be taken over by the state.

The MSPAP test is better than "the old-fashioned multiple choice test," said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent.

But many teachers believe it is wrong to place so much emphasis on one test to measure the quality of a school. Carol Corwell-Martin, a third-grade teacher at Salem Avenue Elementary School who helped write the teachers union report, said other standardized tests should be part of the mix.

Corwell-Martin also said that individual students' test scores should be sent to parents to provide incentives for students to do their best. Now, many older students may figure it's not worth taking seriously.

"If you don't have individual accountability, how can you have school accountability?" she said.

Peiffer said that is a concern fueled more by perception and miscommunication than reality. He said state education officials examine other criteria, such as student attendance and dropout rates.

"We don't promote that and we don't believe that's what the Maryland School Performance Program is all about," he said.

Room for improvement

Local teachers said state education officials have improved the design of the test, but they said there is still room for improvement.

Some of the material on the tests is not appropriate for some grade levels, and the test is too long for younger students, they said.

"I've seen a number of students go through it," said Jane Staley, who teaches third grade at Old Forge Elementary School. "The first day, they're fine. The second day, they're a little tired, and by the time they get to the third day they're skunked. After the third day, they don't put much effort into it."

Corwell-Martin said there is little difference between the third-grade test and the one used in fifth grade.

Some of the information is not appropriate for third-graders, she said. For instance, she cited a question from one year that asked students to demonstrate the difference among capital, human and natural resources.

Corwell-Martin questioned whether it is necessary for 9- and 10-year-olds to know that.

"I could teach my children how to do algebra, but at the cost of what else?" she said.

The teachers association report contains a number of recommendations to address that problem.

For instance, the report suggests hiring independent developmental psychologists review third- and fifth-grade tasks.

Peiffer said state officials already have taken action on many of the teachers' suggestions and will consider further changes.

Peiffer said state administrators already conduct extensive review of tests. Furthermore, if many students are unable to complete the tasks in the allotted time, he said the results are not counted and the test is changed the following year.

"Unfortunately, teachers don't know we make those little adjustments as we go along," he said.

Other suggestions

The teachers report contains a number of other recommendations.

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