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MSPAP scores bringing cheer to some schools, gloom to others

February 04, 2002

MSPAP scores bringing cheer to some schools, gloom to others



By ANDREW SCHOTZ
andrews@herald-mail.com


The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test is supposed to be just one measure among several of how well students are learning.

But that didn't stop principals from puffing up with pride or deflating from dejection when the 2001 MSPAP scores recently were released.

It was cloud nine at Cascade Elementary School, where the percentage of students who scored at least "satisfactory" on the 2001 test soared from 50.0 to 67.2.

"We will celebrate as a school and as a community," Principal Timothy Abe said.

On the other hand, Old Forge Elementary School's scores discouraged Principal JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown.

Old Forge was riding a wave of MSPAP improvement. The percentage of students scoring in the satisfactory range increased from 43.9 in 1996, to 58.0 in 1997 and 1998, to 64.3 in 1999, to 67.9 in 2000.

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This year, the wave crashed as the percentage dropped to 51.7.

"We were very disappointed," Palkovitz-Brown said.

The last few years, the state honored Old Forge for its MSPAP prowess. Now, the school improvement team will discuss whether anything needs to be fixed.

It's possible that nothing is wrong.

"We know that one year does not make a trend," Palkovitz-Brown said.

The MSPAP annually tests third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students in six areas: reading, writing, language usage, math, science and social studies.

The test is scored from 1 to 5, with 1 the highest and 5 the lowest. A score of 3, 2, or 1 is considered satisfactory. A score of 2 or 1 is considered excellent.

The Maryland State Department of Education delayed releasing the 2001 scores for two months because of extreme fluctuations from the previous year.

Test experts from the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment studied the results for several weeks before deciding the data were correct.

In Washington County, Cascade and Old Forge were not the only schools to shift greatly. Salem Avenue (down 17.1), Greenbrier (up 11.8) and Sharpsburg (down 11.7) elementary schools and E. Russell Hicks Middle School (down 11.2) also changed by more than 10 percentage points.

"There certainly were some unexpected, and perhaps wild, variations," said Linda Fernandez, the Washington County Board of Education's interim executive director for curriculum and instruction.

The composite Washington County score - the percentage of students who scored at or above the satisfactory level - dropped slightly, from 54.4 in 2000 to 52.1 in 2001. The change is not considered statistically significant, meaning it is likely to have happened by chance.

The MSPAP test is meant to let schools gauge their own progress. The state cautions against comparing schools' composite scores or ranking them.

The state does not compare districts to each other, either, but the districts do it on their own. A week ago, the Washington County Board of Education proudly announced that its 2001 composite score is the sixth-best among the state's 24 school districts.

Fernandez agreed that this may be a double standard. She said it's necessary, though, because state ranking is a measure of accountability.

"We need to tell the taxpayers of Washington County that they're getting value for their tax dollars," she said.

Regardless, the MSPAP test is only one indication of academic success, according to Fernandez.

Second-, fourth- and sixth-graders are tested annually in several topics. Also, Washington County students in all grades take quarterly "MSPAP-like" tests that assess knowledge in core subjects, Fernandez said.

A big reason for the jump in Cascade's percentage, Fernandez suggested, is a districtwide reading improvement program that started about four years ago. She said it has worked especially well at Cascade, where Mary Newby runs it.

Abe said Newby has a "dual role" - teaching students to read and helping other teachers find the best way to teach reading.

"She's respected by the people here," he said. "They see her as an equal, and that's important."

Cascade's new approach, tightly linking writing and reading, has helped students flourish, Newby said.

Teachers almost always include writing tasks in, for example, science and social studies lessons. In many subjects, children read passages, then write about them.

After first grade, students are tested on their writing skills three times a year. For one test, they read an informational text. For another, a story. For the third, an experiment or recipe or instructions to make a craft.

It's not enough to solve math problems, Newby said. Students must explain, in writing, how they arrived at their answers.

"You have to be able to write down your thoughts," she said. Some bright students - excellent readers - had trouble writing at first, but they have gotten used to it, she said.

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