ANNAPOLIS – An independent research group told the Maryland State Board of Education Wednesday the state’s school performance test is exemplary, but still could use some improvements.
The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program has come under fire from some teachers, politicians and parents for almost a decade. The test, administered to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders each May, attempts to measure reading and writing skills through essays and group projects, instead of multiple choice-based tests other states use.
Problems arise, critics say, because the MSPAP does not test basic skills and because results only measure schools, not individual students.
The research group — Maryland Assessment Research Center for Educational Success at the University of Maryland — touched on these subjects as well as others, saying in its preliminary recommendations more studies are needed to improve the test.
The Maryland State Department of Education commissioned the group in January to conduct a review of the MSPAP. The group’s final report is due out in December.
“MSPAP is unique and is the only state assessment that has students engage in complex reasoning over a long period of time,” said Edys Quellmalz of SRI International, a California research institution that led the study.
The report did not offer solutions to the problems it listed.
The researchers recommended the MSPAP be better aligned with Maryland Learning Outcomes, a set of educational goals set by the state, to better determine school progress.
In addition, the report said not all teachers are teaching the same curriculum, causing a discrepancy in scores.
Student preparation and any items used during testing should be standardized, the group also said.
The full report may recommend a study on possible racial bias in the MSPAP, although the reviewers did not study the issue, said Robert Lissitz, chairman of the educational research center at the University of Maryland.
“That’s a major concern, that the test may be culturally biased,” said board member Reginald Dunn.
The more than 700 teachers who develop and review the tests consider such issues, said Nancy Grasmick, state school superintendent.
Board members also questioned whether the tests should focus on students instead of schools. Students may not be motivated to do well on the tests if they are not held accountable for it, critics have charged.
Quellmalz said she “can’t speak to motivational issues” although “it is not an unusual problem. It’s the problem with any type of school-level test.”
Measuring individuals would require a complete restructuring of the test, Lissitz said.
Some critics are pleased by efforts to improve the test, although it has a long way to go. Parents need to understand the test’s problems in order to help improve it, said Delegate Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel, a longtime MSPAP critic.
“Everyone seems to know that it’s a problem,” she said. “But they don’t know why it’s a problem.”