- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

Early on a Saturday morning, 65 eighth-graders trickle into Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston. For the next six hours, while their peers sleep late or watch television, these students will wrestle with math equations, parts of speech, chemical formulas, historic dates all with a single goal in mind: passing the Standards of Learning tests.
"Just being here gives them that extra confidence when they go into a test," said teacher Jennifer Bowers, who has devised a social-skills class where children learn how to study effectively for the tests.
Hughes, with its strong focus on testing, is by no means unique. Schools around the country, responding to the call for greater accountability, have implemented standardized testing programs over the past decade. And under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, the stakes are higher than ever, with millions of dollars in federal funding tied to the tests.
Maryland and Virginia were part of that wave in the early to mid-1990s. But the tests primarily used in the two states to measure performance are like so many things about the neighbors a study in contrasts.
The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAPs) tests students on their mastery of basic skills and "how well they can apply that knowledge in authentic problem-solving situations," according to the department of education's Web site. Students complete "tasks" that might ask them to plan a zoo or write a persuasive speech.
Virginia's Standards of Learning are minimum requirements that "set reasonable targets and expectations for what … students need to learn," the state says. The tests are made up almost exclusively of multiple-choice questions.
The MSPAPs measure students in third, fifth and eighth grades in math, science, social studies, reading and writing. The state currently is devising assessment tests for high schoolers, which students will have to pass in order to graduate.
Maryland also administers the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) to second-, fourth- and sixth-graders, which measure skills in math, language arts and reading.
Put in place in 1993, the MSPAPs comprise essay questions that ask students to think critically. The tests do not provide individual scores for students, but measure the school's performance.
The tests have received strong reviews for encouraging creative thinking, but critics often dismiss them as being too vague.
Until recently, the tests were the toast of educators. Maryland's system of standards and accountability the tests being one measure of the same was hailed as the best in the country in a survey in the weekly newspaper Education Week.
Even so, eight years into MSPAP testing, not a single school district has reached state-set goals for a 70 percent passing rate.
And the results for the 2000-01 tests released this year showed scores plunged inexplicably: As many as 200 schools showed double-digit drops, and figures were down in 20 of the state's 24 school districts.
Among them were Montgomery County, whose scores fell by 4.4 percent, and Kent County, which posts the highest scores in the state.
The Montgomery County school board demanded that the MSPAPs be scrapped and replaced temporarily with the CTBS until the state can come up with new tests. Carroll County joined the chorus of outcries.
"While the CTBS is not the be-all and end-all of tests, it provides a valuable data point. It is a potential resource, given the current state of the MSPAPs," Montgomery County schools spokesman Brian Porter said.
Although three independent reviews of the tests did not find any problems with the testing and scoring, the Maryland State Department of Education announced some reforms last week: School districts will be allowed to opt out of the eighth-grade MSPAPs; they also can hire out-of-state scorers to grade the exam.
"We recognize that we need to make some changes and will try to begin the transition process … we will look at all the adjustments we can make," state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said.
Michelle Turner, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, has five children in the public schools system. She says changes to the MSPAP tests are "very necessary."
She said that, as a parent, she has several problems with the MSPAP, including the lack of scores for individual students.
"I want to know how my child is doing, what they are learning, what they have achieved," she said.
She also said the tests are very difficult for third-graders, and teachers spend too much time preparing students for the tests.
The county PTA is scheduled to vote this month on two MSPAP-related motions, one asking that the tests be completely halted and another calling for changes. The state PTA recently voted for a complete halt to the tests, "and we will most likely confirm" that view, Mrs. Turner said.

Searching for a balance
Maryland will look at the possibility of incorporating short-answer or multiple-choice questions, balancing them with the essay-type questions, she said.
Last year, the state also started pilots of high school assessments. The tests are not yet being used as a requirement for graduation, but the state plans to introduce that mandate within the next few years.
Other changes will follow recommendations made last month by the Visionary Panel for Better Schools appointed by Mrs. Grasmick. Among other things, the panel has recommended a statewide curriculum for every grade in every subject and a shared system of accountability.
Mrs. Grasmick said a voluntary statewide curriculum will be in place for the next school year and will be introduced at the middle school level.
Patricia O'Neill, vice president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, said that while some multiple-choice questions can be a good idea if properly presented, schools need to guard against turning children into "robots" with questions that encourage memorization.
"You have to find the proper balance. The answer is not just to require children to drill … they need critical thinking skills," she says.
Principal Phil Catania of Mount Rainier Elementary in Prince George's County said the MSPAPs are a "wonderful tool" to encourage creative thinking, but added the tests themselves have problems.
"The third-grade test is developmentally inappropriate. What children have to answer is very difficult," he said.
Teachers and principals have no idea what will be on the tests until they actually have them and when they hand out the tests, they cannot answer any questions the children might have.
Mr. Catania said the MSPAPs carry with them a great deal of stress.
In Maryland, schools that score below certain levels are placed on a list for state takeover. Sometimes, principals stand to lose their jobs.
"There is more pressure because accountability is much higher," he said.

Back-to-basics debate
Accountability was the watchword in Virginia in 1996 when the state implemented the Standards of Learning (SOLs).
The SOLs currently measure third-, fifth- and eighth-grade and high school students in English, math, science and social studies. Other grades are measured by the Stanford Achievement Test Series (SAT-9), a nationally used academic test that measures skills in math, science and reading.
The tests are made up entirely of multiple-choice questions, except for the writing component in fifth and eighth grades and in high school. Starting in 2004, high school seniors will be required to pass at least six SOLs in order to graduate. After 2007, any school that does not show a student-passing rate of 70 percent will lose its accreditation.
The pressure is on for schools: Five years before that state-set deadline requiring the 70 percent student passing rate, only 631 of the state's schools, or 40 percent, are fully accredited in 2001-2002. One-hundred thirty schools, or 7 percent, are accredited with warning, meaning they were 20 percentage points or more short of the state's benchmark.
The tests stress back-to-basics knowledge, SOL supporters say. Critics contend the tests lean heavily on mechanical memorization and, because the focus is on drilling the basics, the student isn't challenged to think creatively or critically.
Members of the Virginia Board of Education say the SOLs have been very successful.
"The fact is, children are learning more. I have spoken with several parents who tell me how much their children are learning because of the SOLs," board President Mark Christie said.
But strong opposition also has led to several bills being introduced year after year in the General Assembly, seeking to change some of the SOL mandates. Many seek to bend the standards for "transition" students children who already were in school at the time the standards were implemented and who must pass them to graduate.
Mr. Christie said the board has heeded calls for change. After school districts repeatedly returned low scores in history and social sciences, the board revised standards for these tests in December 2000. This year, revisions will be made in the English tests.
"The law says we have to review all these SOL areas regularly," Mr. Christie said.

Pushing for reform
None of the measures in the General Assembly has passed yet, but in January the board voted to support any legislation authorizing it to speedily create guidelines to help students at risk of failing the SOL tests in 2004.
But critics say that isn't enough.
Mickey VanDerwerker, who has five children in the Bedford County school system and is a member of the local school board, says that since the SOLs were implemented, the homework for her five children has increased in quantity over the years, but not in quality.
"They are just doing fill-in-the-blanks and multiple choices all the time," said Mrs. VanDerwerker, one of the founders of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs.
Even supporters of the SOLs are not sure if implementing them every year is a good idea.
"Some testing is good, but too much testing is not necessarily better," says Steve Hunt, spokesman for PASS-SOL, a Fairfax-based group that backs SOL testing.
Mr. Hunt said SAT-9 tests do a good job of testing children in the years they do not take the SOLs, but the SOLs have helped children overall.
"The SOLs have caused the system to improve teaching," he said.
Mr. Hunt said that it is up to teachers to assign essay-type questions, once children have grasped the basics as part of the SOL curriculum.
"All learning entails some memorization," he said. "For instance, before you grasp the significance of the Revolutionary War, you need to memorize who are the people involved."
At Hughes, Miss Bowers sacrifices almost every Saturday morning during each semester to make it to her class. She said she and other teachers at the school try to do more than teach to the tests.
Science teacher Henry Campbell said: "We also work hard to make a connection between subjects. Like when we are talking about science, we try and make connections to history and math."

Searching for standards
D.C. public schools use the SAT-9s to measure students in grades one through 11 in math and reading.
Mary H. Gill, chief academic officer for public schools, said the school system has worked to align SAT-9s with performance and content standards in the District's schools. But critics including the American Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers union in the country have rapped the District for not having clear standards.
The District also is still struggling to catch up with old requirements for Title 1 schools under the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, and is expected to come up with a plan by the end of this month to comply with assessment needs for such schools.
In the past, the city could not afford to create its own tests because of a lack of funds and manpower, Ms. Gill said. "We are counted as a state, but we are not funded like one," she added, saying states like Maryland and Virginia have devoted a great deal of time, staff and money to creating their own assessments.
"We are moving night and day to be in full compliance … but it takes time to create a stable core and get all teachers trained. Otherwise, you end up penalizing the children," she said.
Ms. Gill says that to comply with the federal act, the District is working on a Web-based system to report all school-related data and on creating assessments for special education and children who speak English as a second language.
The system also is working on end-of-course tests for graduation and conducting pilot tests for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students so it can implement "preventative rather than remedial" measures to help children achieve, she said.
Regardless of its other struggles, Ms. Gill said the District is already in compliance with one major requirement of the federal act testing for math and reading.
"In that respect, we are already ahead of the game," Ms. Gill said.

Big changes ahead
The No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by President Bush in January requires all states that accept federal dollars to implement annual testing in reading and math for students in grades three to eight starting in 2005.
The results will be posted on statewide report cards, and parents will have the option to transfer children out of schools that don't improve.
The legislation is a "real opportunity for states and one we hope they will seize upon," said Joseph Garcia of Achieve Inc., a D.C.-based group that studies accountability measures in schools.
Federal spending on education will increase in the first year alone from $19.5 billion to $26.5 billion, a large part of which will go toward improved accountability measures.
Locally, the District, which has 68,449 students, will get $149.8 million in funding in the first year, including $3.2 million "to assess how well children are learning and schools are teaching."
Maryland's share will be $642.6 million, with $6.8 million for assessment. The state, which has 846,582 students, will work to develop a test for seventh-graders and to create a system of individual scoring for students in order to comply with requirements under the federal act.
Virginia's 1 million public school students will get $897.9 million, with $7.9 million for assessment. The state will work to implement SOL testing for fourth-, sixth- and seventh-graders a process that Mr. Christie said should go smoothly, because the system already has clear standards in place.
Those opposed to the measure predict problems for schools and students. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group that studies standardized testing, said the No Child Left Behind Act will undermine the quality of student learning and emphasize teaching to the tests.

Far from perfect
Educators say testing has been a mixed blessing. They acknowledge students are learning more but say the pressure can be overwhelming.
"The tests are stressful to everyone … teachers, students and the administration," Miss Bowers said. "The fact that these children will have to pass the SOLs to graduate high school is extra pressure on everyone."
The Saturday classes are for children who need extra help, but the tutorials are open to everyone. The atmosphere is more relaxed, and there are only five to eight children in each class. But there's serious work going on.
In her class, eight students go through test-taking and memory strategies for 45 minutes so they are better prepared to take tests.
In another class, Mr. Campbell drills into his students the basics of photosynthesis and the difference between a producer of food and a consumer.
The children say they have benefited from the Saturday SOL School.
"I went from a B to an A in my civics test," said Jennifer Gadoua, 13, even though the extra study time means sacrifices. "I don't have any time after school, because of sports. It's hard sometimes."
In one Mount Rainier class preparing for the MSPAPs, third-graders split into four groups. While the largest group practices reading with their teacher, the others play blackjack or the dice game Yahtzee, or draw graphs. But these games are not just for fun they're lessons in math.
"The MSPAPs often present math questions as games," said Pauline Carey, a math technology resource teacher.
As three girls roll the dice, Mrs. Carey asks them how they would categorize the numbers on their dice.
One girl immediately arranges the five dice into two groups of numbers higher and lower than four. Another girl arranges them into odd numbers.
Educators debate changes to the tests, which, they agree, are far from perfect in their current form.
Hughes Assistant Principal Conrad Hollingsworth said some questions that encourage analytical writing "would be helpful" in the SOL tests.
In Maryland, some multiple-choice questions would be welcome, teachers say, so long as they are designed to require "higher thinking."
"If Maryland and Virginia could meet in the District and devise a test that's midway, we'd solve the problem," Mrs. Carey said.

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