MSPAP and beyond: Putting schools to the test

March 02, 2001

MSPAP and beyond: Putting schools to the test

In the State of Maryland, there are 24 major school systems, 23 run by the counties and one by Baltimore City. You would think, then, that moving from No. 14 to No. 6 of the state's "report card" would be cause for celebration.

That's what Washington County has done, but instead of cheers and congratulations, local citizens almost seem unaware that the system has taken such a leap ahead. Part of that is due to the fact that the local school system doesn't do a good job of promoting itself; there are still some people in the schools who don't believe the system needs a public-relations director.

But the other reason the county's achievement is so underappreciated is because there's been so much controversy surrounding the primary yardstick used to measure it.

It's called the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, a test that's been in place for almost 10 years. Its results, combined with such things as attendance rates, are used to create a "report card" for the individual schools.


The test itself has been much-criticized, probably because it's been surrounded in secrecy. In December 1999, when a panel assembled by the prestigious Abell Foundation wanted to study the test, members were required to come to State Education Department headquarters and read test materials there.

Small wonder that the Abell panel panned the test in a report made public by The Baltimore Sun in August 2000. One panel member summed up the panel's conclusion, saying that "content is not adequately covered..." in the test.

Instead of asking students to recite facts, the MSPAP tests concentrate on how well students can put those facts to use. But like a man who trying to convince an audience that there really is an elephant behind the curtain, the curtain of secrecy covering MSPAP has made it hard for defenders to make their case.

They got a lift recently when Education Week magazine's "Quality Counts 2001" report concluded that Maryland has the highest educational standards and the best accountability program. In an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun, State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick basked in the warmth of that endorsement and said that the state should not be distracted by a "single flawed study..."

But to Herman Bartlett Jr., the superintendent of the Washington County schools, the state and county aren't depending on just one test, but on a whole program that keeps the system accountable. And the local system has moved ahead, he said, because some steps taken several years ago have begun to pay off.

The first was the development of the so-called essential curriculum, which Bartlett described as "everything students should know and understand" at each grade level.

Then the system was tweaked by adjusting the "scope and sequence," Bartlett said, referring the process by which educators determine when certain ideas should be presented. For example, a first grader should be able to tell a dog from a cat, but by fifth grade should be ready to learn that dogs are related to wolves and simple house cats to the big cats like lions.

The third leg on the stool is testing, or as Bartlett describes it, "a measurement system to answer the question: Are students getting it and retaining it?"

Maryland doesn't just rely on the MSPAP tests, he said, but also uses the CTSB - the California Test of Basic Skills, "which looks at our students to see how well they're doing in competition with students around the country."

The CTSB is given in second, fourth and sixth grades, while the MSPAP test is administered in third, fifth and eighth grades.

All of this, Bartlett said, is preparing today's students for the high-school assessment test, which will take effect in 2007. There's no decision yet what will happen to those who don't pass - they may get certificates of attendance as opposed to state-approved diplomas - but Bartlett is confident local students will be ready.

"Washington County is moving at a faster pace than any other school system in the state," he said.

It may seem like a bold statement, but after a 1997 curriculum audit found a series of problems, a team of 200-plus educators and businesspeople put together a strategic plan that has paid off.

One key to that, Bartlett said, was to look at schools like Salem Avenue - named a national Blue Ribbon School - and see what was responsible for its success and try to duplicate those programs in other schools.

"You really have to go back to your root, your staff," he said.

One part of that process that's been unpopular with some staff members is the idea of having written lesson plans. But given the success that's been achieved, he said, "I believe it's a tried and true process."

What happens next? The high-school assessment preparations will continue with "pilot tests" administered to some of the student who'll be required to take the real thing, Bartlett said.

And, Bartlett said, parents will be encouraged to ask about their child's MSPAP scores - not currently released for individual children - to see how they're progressing.

The other thing Bartlett hopes the community can develop over time is something mentioned by Theresa Flak, outgoing deputy superintendent.

Getting progress to continue, Bartlett said, depends on "the community having some reverence for education and a realization that it's an important part of what we do."

Perhaps when that happens, there'll be a little more celebration when the county moves a few spaces up on the state's educational hit parade.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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