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In Md., the 'Bubble' Test Has Burst

By Amy Argetsinger and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 11, 1998; Page A01

It's standardized-test time in Maryland elementary schools. But in Ms. Eaton's third-grade class at Germantown Elementary, there are no multiple-choice bubble sheets to be found.

And No. 2 pencils are strictly optional.

In practice tests that resemble the real ones they will take this week, students are not hunched over desks but are gathering in small groups to discuss a book about the rain forest.

They're penning their own stories about rain forest animals. "Brittanee Butterfly Meets the Cheetah," one girl starts.

They're drawing freehand charts enumerating the kinds of "natural resources" and "capital resources" and "human resources" found in the rain forest.

This is the MSPAP -- the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the state's pioneering and controversial test of how well students can analyze information and solve problems.

About 180,000 Maryland students in the third, fifth and eighth grades are taking the week-long tests this month, with third- and eighth-graders' exams beginning today. Fifth-graders were tested last week,

The six-year-old MSPAP was born into controversy, in part because the exams are designed not to assess individual students but to rate the schools that educate them. Some critics find baffling the exam's nontraditional, task-oriented approach that asks open-ended questions and allows students to work in groups for some activities.

Others complain that the tests have taken on undue importance in some schools, as teachers conduct practice sessions, hold pre-test pep rallies, and even send letters home to parents imploring them to schedule doctor and dentist appointments around test days so that their children's absences won't be counted against the school's showing.

Yet for all the protests, the MSPAP has slowly gained general acceptance and even enthusiasm from many principals and teachers.

In response to the tests' demands, many have been motivated to change the way they educate children throughout the school year. And the MSPAP has become one of the most influential benchmarks driving education policies in the state -- with significant recent impact in the Washington suburbs.

This year, nine Prince George's County schools were declared to be at risk of state takeover, largely because of their sagging MSPAP scores. In Montgomery County, officials are feeling pressure to heed the test more closely, after their nationally vaunted schools slipped in the MSPAP rankings.

A small but vocal cadre of parents continues to protest the MSPAP, saying it takes time away from the "basics" of everyday school instruction.

Yet up close, the test seems less like a test and more like a regular, if somewhat rigorous, day in class.

Given every year to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, the MSPAP features no multiple-choice responses. Students read passages, complete work sheets, draw explanatory charts, write essays and even perform mini-science experiments -- often as part of a group.

Maryland teachers design and score the tests, which measure students' abilities in six areas -- reading, writing, language usage, social studies, mathematics and science.

However, instead of giving six separate tests, MSPAP often blends more than one skill in a single test. For example, "Deserts" -- a sample test provided by state officials -- asks third-graders to list the kinds of plants, animals and climate characteristics found in deserts, to plot deserts on a map, and to write essays explaining what tips on desert travel they have gleaned from reading a short story on the subject. In giving their answers, students must display reading, writing, language and social studies knowledge.

A fifth-grade test, dubbed "Bounce Back Ball," assesses mathematics and science skills: Students gather in teams to measure the rebound heights of a tennis ball dropped from different heights, then draw charts and graphs to display their findings and predict other outcomes.

Most agree that these tests are in many ways more challenging than multiple-choice exams. "There are more ways to be wrong," said William D. Schafer, state director of student assessment, "but also more ways to be right."

The point, state officials say, is to ensure that students are developing the analytical skills to compete in an increasingly complex, information-driven society.

They boast that while traditional standardized tests merely measure how well a student performs compared with his peers, the MSPAP measures how close students are to achieving the skills they will need in life.

"You don't want a pilot who is simply 'above average,' " said Ron Peiffer, the assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach. "You want one who can take off, fly the plane and land it competently." The goal set in 1993, when the MSPAP was officially administered for the first time, was to have 70 percent of all students making "satisfactory" scores and 25 percent at "excellent" by 2000.

Last year, only 41.8 percent of Maryland students scored "satisfactory," up from 31.7 in 1993. Still, state education officials insist the test is within the reach of elementary and middle school children: In two experiments, Taiwanese students took the same test translated into Chinese and outperformed Maryland students of the same age.

"People have raised issues about 'Are we shooting too high?' " Assistant State Superintendent Mark Moody said. "We're very comfortable that we've established standards that are certainly within the abilities of students."

The MSPAP was launched after a 1989 report by a governor's commission on education demanded greater accountability in public schools. At the time, MSPAP was hailed for offering one of the first "performance-based" school tests in the nation, playing down rote memorization and multiple-choice questions in favor of emphasizing the ability to analyze and apply concepts.

But so far, few states have followed Maryland's lead, finding such tests to be too expensive and time-consuming. A few, however, have added open-ended, essay-style items to their multiple-choice tests.

Many MSPAP critics have complained that the test is used only to rate schools and does not measure individual student performance. It was for this reason that Montgomery County officials said they played down its importance for many years.

Peiffer said the MSPAP is too complicated to use as a gauge of how well a student is doing.

No one student takes the entire MSPAP package: three separate batches of exams are given to randomly divided groups within a school, and their performance is extrapolated to reflect the school's overall performance.

If they choose, county school systems can administer their own standardized tests to monitor individual students' progress, Peiffer said.

Another oft-heard concern is that the growing emphasis on MSPAP forces schools to "teach to the test" -- focusing the curriculum on material expected to show up on the test, at the expense of basic subjects.

Many teachers deny teaching specific information aimed at the tests. But they acknowledge the MSPAP has forced many changes in the way they teach.

At Germantown Elementary, early MSPAP scores showed that students had poor writing skills, said Principal Judy Brubaker. Now, every morning before regular classes start, teachers write two grammatically incorrect sentences on the chalkboard and ask students to rewrite them. A math problem is part of the new morning regimen as well.

In the third-grade classrooms, posters list the vocabulary words that students need to learn simply to comprehend the MSPAP directions: "area, centimeter, data, graph . . . " "finally, next, then, first . . . ." "results, suggestions, compare..."

"I used to teach about Japan, I used to teach about Mexico," said teacher Linda Eaton. "Now, we're asking them why, and to explain. Now we compare."

Students "really have to analyze things," said fellow third-grade teacher Patricia Epps. "It prepares them for later grades, and for life skills."

Five years after testing began, the MSPAP has received mixed scores from educators across the country. Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Massachusetts nonprofit agency promoting testing reform, calls it "the best single statewide test in the country."

Others say the MSPAP is too subjective and fuzzy. Dan Koretz, a senior social scientist at Rand Education, believes the fact that students perform tasks in groups could skew the scoring.

"Maryland's test is very unusual for achievement testing and in my view hasn't been adequately evaluated," he said.

Yet others applaud the changes the test has forced. The proof, they say, is in the scores.

"They seem to be making it work relatively successfully," said Wayne Martin, director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "If the students weren't being taught to the test, you wouldn't be seeing scores improving."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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