- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

BALTIMORE As students across Maryland prepare for the annual rite of standardized testing, state officials are cramming to replace the state's once-celebrated assessment exam to conform with new federal standards.
The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) was a break from the philosophy of other tests, with its emphasis on problem solving over fill-in-the-blanks and multiple-choice questions.
However, MSPAP will be replaced by what likely will be a much more traditional exam to satisfy federal accountability requirements that take effect July 1. State officials are working on a tight schedule to finish the new test by this fall.
Nationwide, states are scrambling to change exams to measure student and school performance to meet the standards of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. But Maryland's test, widely considered one of the more original standardized tests, may suffer the most from the change.
"MSPAP has been one of the best state assessment systems," said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "It went far beyond the mindless regurgitation of facts and the filling in of bubbles that most standardized tests measure."
Maryland likely will work with a company that makes standardized tests to fashion one that meets the state's needs, said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick.
Over the next several months, state education officials will set up several task forces of teachers and administrators to discuss changes in the state test, said Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the state education department.
Each will focus on subjects on which students need to be tested and issues to be addressed, such as math and reading. The task force also will ensure compliance with federal regulations for districts with a certain percentage of poor students, which receive extra federal funding, he said.
It will be difficult for state educators to part with MSPAP despite criticism of the exam this spring from counties upset by lower scores. It also is highly regarded outside Maryland the magazine Education Week recently ranked MSPAP the top state exam for its emphasis on writing and hands-on testing.
First used in 1994, MSPAP is administered each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders to test knowledge of reading, writing, math, language, social studies and science.
Questions test problem-solving skills rather than memorization and include some extended written sections and group exercises.
Most importantly, the test scores are used to evaluate the performances of schools, not individual students. High scores are a source of pride for counties and schools, while schools that continue to perform poorly can become eligible for takeover by the state.
The focus on school performance is where MSPAP runs up against the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the law, states must administer exams in grades three through eight and focus on student scores rather than school results.
Not all students will take MSPAP this year. After this spring's criticism, Mrs. Grasmick made the eighth-grade MSPAP optional for 2002. An agreement with the U.S. Department of Education required the test only for school districts receiving federal poverty money.
Whatever state officials do to replace MSPAP, they want to preserve the exam's problem-solving approach.
"We still want to do a high-quality assessment, one that is not just a multiple-choice test," Mrs. Grasmick said.
The stakes are high, said W. James Popham, a retired University of California at Los Angeles education professor. Standardized tests often affect what is taught in classrooms, he said. The desire to earn high scores on standardized tests can prompt teachers to "teach to the test," a danger if the test focuses on memorization and multiple-choice questions.
The temptation is for states to use this type of test, which is easy to administer and grade, Mr. Popham said.
"This is a major chance for educators to look like failures," he told the State Board of Education last week. "If you use the traditional type of test, that doesn't give you much chance to succeed in the classroom."
Paying for a new test may be a challenge, as well. Under the new federal law, Maryland and other states have to test students each year between third and eighth grade starting with the 2005-06 school year.
The federal government will provide $6 million to $7 million for the state to develop a new test, Mr. Peiffer said.
It costs an average of $25 per student each year to administer MSPAP in three grades. If Maryland chooses to buy an exam from a testing company, it could cost anywhere from $25 to $250 each year per student, Mr. Peiffer said. The number of students taking the test will grow as more grades are added.
Maryland education officials want to preserve much of what they say has made MSPAP a success. But as they race to come up with a new exam, state officials need to remember the effect it will have in the classroom, Mr. Schaeffer said.
"If because of political and economic pressures, Maryland school officials choose to go to a mindless off-the-shelf exam, in many schools, they will get mindless, off-the-shelf teaching."

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