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Re: Don't Panic Over Poor Test Scores (washingtonpost.com)

Don't Panic Over Poor Test Scores (washingtonpost.com)Karen,

Too bad. We CAN make the tests better, but not to that degree.

----- Original Message -----
From: Karen Canty
To: ARN-L@listsrva.CUA.EDU
Sent: Wednesday, February 20, 2002 11:54 AM
Subject: Re: Don't Panic Over Poor Test Scores (washingtonpost.com)


IMHO, Jay would look for the teachers that he quoted at the end of the story and not the others, because I think he really believes that somehow we can find a test that will help kids improve their learning and prove it....maybe I'm wrong but in my reading of his stories, there is a thread that "if we just made the tests better....."

-----Original Message-----
From: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List [mailto:ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU]On Behalf Of William Cala
Sent: Tuesday, February 19, 2002 4:14 PM
Subject: Re: Don't Panic Over Poor Test Scores (washingtonpost.com)

Jay's not wrong. The teachers he is speaking to at the end of the piece are wrong. He should be quoting the good teachers who DON'T believe that the tests are helping kids.





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Don't Panic Over Poor Test Scores
_____From The Post_____

. Montgomery Board Wants Md. to Drop MSPAP Testing (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2002)
. Four Montgomery Unions Urge Delay of Next MSPAP (The Washington Post, Feb 12, 2002)
. Five Pr. George's Schools Added to State's Watch List (The Washington Post, Jan 30, 2002)
. Md. Reports Broad Decline in Key Test Scores (The Washington Post, Jan 29, 2002)
. Testing Errors Didn't Cause MSPAP Swings, Panel Says (The Washington Post, Jan 24, 2002)
. State Finds Problems In MSPAP Scoring (The Washington Post, Nov 7, 2001)
. Study Endorses MSPAP Exams (The Washington Post, Nov 1, 2001)

_____On the Web_____

. MSPAP Scores

_____Special Report_____

. Education Testing

_____About the Author_____

. Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.

_____Also in Class Struggle_____

. Parenting Impacts Success in Kindergarten (The Washington Post, Feb 12, 2002)
. Parents Holding the Educational Process Together (The Washington Post, Feb 5, 2002)
. Surviving the College Application Process (The Washington Post, Jan 29, 2002)

_____Also in Education_____

. Kindergarten Readiness Primer
. Latest Education News

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2002; 7:32 AM

Most of the country has not heard about it yet, but an extraordinary reaction to strange results in Maryland's state achievement test is revealing how easily the national effort to raise school standards could crumble.

At first it seemed like little more than a testing anomaly. The state's main tool for assessing schools, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), showed that many improving schools had suffered sudden declines in test scores. The psychometricians who make the tests usually shrug off such incidents as temporary. Even Kobe Bryant sometimes has a bad game.

But state school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick was concerned enough to delay release of the results until the experts could take another look. They saw nothing wrong with the tests or the way they had been scored and reported, so the numbers were reported and the affected schools swallowed the sour news.

I wrote a column about this - "What Is a Useful Comparison of Standardized Tests?" - that was designed to show how smart I was. I scolded my newspaper, all other media, the educators and parents of Maryland and the human race for being too compulsive about annual results. I endorsed the recommendations of many testing experts: junk year-to-year comparisons in favor of three-year averages or cohort comparisons or other devices that give educators more time to show how much their students have improved.

That didn't make school administrators in Maryland feel any better. They said they were shocked to see all that money and effort producing lower scores.

The Montgomery County and Carroll County school boards, as well at the Baltimore County Parent-Teacher Association, have called for a moratorium on the MSPAP (pronounced miss-pap). I wouldn't be surprised if more boards and educational leaders did the same. Many principals and superintendents do not want to give the tests this spring until someone explains to them and their teachers why they should work so hard for such unpredictable results.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I was seeing a possible, and to me disturbing, future for low-performing schools everywhere.

Since a few aggressive state governors began the standards movement in the 1980s, with the eventual collaboration of both Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, there have been many setbacks. Money to create more challenging curriculums and tests to measure their effect has been hard to find. State legislatures have delayed testing systems when the initial results were too embarrassing.

Many teacher organizations, and some parent groups, have fought the idea of rating schools, and denying students promotions, on the basis of state-sponsored tests. They say the tests are too narrow and do not address the real problem---poverty and inadequate teaching that give children no chance to reach the new state benchmarks.

But the idea was politically powerful. Governors and presidents who supported it were elected and re-elected. The higher learning standards went into effect and the testing began. In Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, California, Connecticut and several other states the scores started low, but have gone up. Many states have been slow to join the movement, but the momentum seems in its favor, particularly after Congress this year passed and the president signed the "No Child Left Behind" law.

Now the MSPAP mishap, and further reverses like it, threaten all that. The distress caused by the slumping scores in Maryland exposes how few nails are holding up the new bridge to a better educational future.

Some educators and researchers have faulted the new state tests for being simple-minded multiple choice exercises. But MSPAP is different. It is full of essay questions and even some complicated group exercises. Craig Jerald, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Education Trust, said other states "come nowhere close to Maryland in the extent to which assessments attempt to get at thinking processes rather than simply results."

But what of grading irregularity caused by the complexity of the tests? Some Maryland educators say charges of erratic and overly subjective scoring of the tests are overblown, and that the teacher-scorers they know say the system makes sense. They say their teaching has gained momentum, and any moratoria or delays would seriously handicap them. "Kids are smarter, the world and our technology changes every minute," said Alesha Simon, a teacher at J.P. Ryon Elementary School in Charles County. "Kids need to be able to think and apply their knowledge."

Educators who favor encouraging students to discover truths, rather than memorize them, might be expected to defend MSPAP vigorously. But many of them haven't. They don't like tests, no matter how good they are, having such an influence over education policy. Alfie Kohn, the Massachusetts-based author and lecturer who is a leading advocate of encouraging thinking skills, told me MSPAP is "one of the least bad tests in the country, and that is faint praise indeed." Roxanne Grossman, a spokeswoman for the parents group opposed to Virginia's multiple-choice tests, said "I don't feel at all confident that switching over to [MSPAP-type tests] would solve the problem." Ron Wolk, founder of the newspaper Education Week, said "these tests don't measure much that I consider of great value-habits of mind, creative thinking, tolerance, honesty, fairness, the ability to work with others, communication skills, etc."

Even more significantly, MSPAP is under attack despite being an established part of its state assessment system, with nearly a decade of teaching and research behind it. Most of the state tests that have been in trouble up until now have been prototypes full of bugs. For Montgomery County, one of the largest, most successful and most politically influential school districts in the country, to demand that its state test be shelved, even temporarily, is a big deal, comparable to a state congressional delegation asking that federal elections please be suspended for a year.

Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery County schools, says I am making too much of this. He says an alternative test can be substituted while the MSPAP's problems are sorted out. But I think he is being too optimistic.

I thought that the standards movement's great political crisis would come in 2004, when some states, including Virginia, will have to start telling high school seniors to forget about renting a graduation cap and gown because they haven't passed the new tests. But the MSPAP decline raises the possibility that the screaming will start much sooner. Improving schools is a very slow and erratic process. If Maryland's scores dropped last year, Virginia's and New York's and California's and Texas's could drop next year.

These will be, as the experts say, only temporary setbacks for the schools. But if enough big districts like Montgomery say that the game is crooked and that they don't want to play, legislatures--including the U.S. Congress--might begin to dilute or remove the consequences of poor school achievement. That would be the end of this chapter in the long history of raising expectations for American children.

I don't like that vision of the future because I don't see any alternative way of helping the 25 percent of American children who are not learning very much. I know. I am a man of limited imagination. But I don't see anyone doing much to expand my horizons. As well-intentioned and intelligent as those opposed to the standards movement are, they have presented no practical solution so far, other than leaving teachers alone to build the resources within each child. They seem to be praying that somehow--without regular testing we won't know if they have succeeded--someone will figure out how to teach more kids to read.

I could be wrong about this. There may be a much better way to fix our schools than to apply consistent, testable standards. But many Maryland teachers tell me they think that is the only reasonable course and they do not want MSPAP to go.

Linda Eberhart, Maryland state Teacher of the Year for 2002, analyzed the decline in some of the MSPAP scores at her school, Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City. She saw several explanations for the drops. Special Saturday classes had been discontinued the year before. There were many new teachers unfamiliar with how to prepare children for MSPAP.

Eberhart said she has seen MSPAP work, even at a school where 80 percent of the children are from families poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches. When she and other teachers changed their instruction and raised their expectations, she said, the students "scored at 90 percent or better in math and have been in the top ten schools in the state in the past three years."

Educators and politicians should not panic, Eberhart said. "Principals and school boards did not complain about the MSPAP program until their test scores started to go down. Schools and teachers really need to do soul searching to find out what they did or how their school population changed to have made the difference," she said.

She says she does not want a moratorium on learning: "I do want to keep the MSPAP this year and in the future for Maryland."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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