- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Standardized test scores in Maryland dropped by 1.6 percent and also showed a significant decline in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, according to results of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program released yesterday.
The results came after a two-month delay, during which a panel of experts investigated reports of irregularities. Yesterday, state administrators said the investigation had found no problems with testing and grading, but officials in Prince George's and Montgomery counties questioned the validity of the tests, saying they need to be revised.
Montgomery suffered a 4.4 percent decline since 2000, taking down the number of students who performed satisfactorily on the tests to 51 percent, while Prince George's scores dropped by 2.7 percent, with 28.3 percent of the students performing satisfactorily. Statewide, 43.7 percent of students performed satisfactorily, compared with 45.3 percent in 2000.
"This is not a very happy day. It is a day of challenges and rebuilding," said Superintendent Iris T. Metts of Prince George's County schools. She added that high poverty levels in the district also had adversely affected scores.
Mrs. Metts suggested there is a need to redesign the tests. "We need to make sure about creating a test with higher thinking skills," she said. Some of the county's schools, such as Fort Foote Elementary and Templeton Elementary, showed double-digit drops in scores after having posted high increases in 1999.
The assessment program measures skills in reading, writing, language use, math, science and social studies in grades three, five and eight. There are no multiple-choice questions, and students write all the answers. However, the tests are not used to measure individual student performance, but rather to judge the effectiveness of the schools. Cash rewards are given to schools that do well, while those that perform badly become eligible for state takeover.
In Montgomery County, most of the schools showed drops in scores. County Board of Education President Reginald Felton said the poor display by some of the higher-performing schools indicates something is wrong. "We believe there are problems with the assessment itself. … There is a problem with test reliability and validity," he said.
In the fall, Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick delayed the release of the test results after those for nearly 200 schools showed double-digit declines. But state education officials yesterday said three studies of the results had explained that the fluctuations had nothing to do with errors in testing and scoring.
"I would agree with the panel," said Mrs. Grasmick when asked about claims made by Montgomery and Prince George's counties that there were problems with the tests.
"I feel confident about the tests," she said, adding, however, that there would be fluctuations in scores each year. "What we are essentially seeing in Maryland is that the scores have plateaued," she said.
She said schools in Montgomery County would not suffer as a result of the low scores, because "they would have to decline significantly to lose the reward money." However, she added, some other low-performing schools in Prince George's County may be put on a list of reconstitution-eligible schools schools with very low scores that are threatened with state takeover. The county last year had 15 schools on the state list.
Assistant Superintendent Ronald Peiffer said changing demographics could have affected statewide scores, causing the wide swings.
The number of poorer students and students who do not speak English has increased sharply in the state since 1993, when the tests were first instituted, Mr. Peiffer said. Another reason, he said, could be the fact that there were more inexperienced teachers in the state because of the nationwide teacher shortage. "In 1992, 17 percent of the teachers were new, and now that number is 34 percent," he said.
Mrs. Grasmick said there are some changes on the horizon for the assessment program, including the adoption of a statewide curriculum as suggested by the Visionary Panel for Better Schools.
Prince George's parent-activist Joan Roche said while the decline didn't appear too significant, "I am disappointed that after 10 years there is no handle on why some schools improve and others don't." She added that schools adopted the "cram philosophy" rather than focusing on improving student skills.
A Montgomery County parent said the fact that there were newer and less-experienced teachers in the county's schools could be one of the reasons scores had come down. Also, she said, the scores needed to be looked at in a larger time frame.
"One can question whether or not there is enough of a backlog to take averages from," she said.
Prince George's school board member Doyle Niemann said students in the county's schools often grow distraught when faced with some of the questions on the tests which, he said, could be very abstract. "Students need more training in the basics, and MSPAP doesn't really do that," he said. "This test as a model for measuring achievement has lost its potential. It is time to rethink that model."

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