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Maryland's MSPAP Test - an unconscionable mistake

This page was created in the hopes of starting a revolt against Maryland's worthless (putting it kindly) test for students in the 3rd, 5th and 8th grades. For the record, MSPAP stands for Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Did you catch that? It was a test of school performance, not student performance.

The test is history now, but the people responsible for it are not, so the page stands as a testament to them. Also, while the MSPAP broke all records for insanity in "standardized" testing, I'm sure many of the concerns expressed here apply to a greater or lesser extent to all standardized tests born of No Child Left Behind, which cranked up just as MSPAP was crashing and burning.


The MSPAP is Maryland's weeklong, statewide test for all 3rd, 5th and 8th graders. In "My MSPAP Letter" below, I attempt to show how absolutely insane the test is. This is of more than local interest since many other states have been duped into believing the education awards Maryland has won, and are starting up similar tests.

I acted as a transcriber for a 3rd-grade student on the 2001 MSPAP test. I was flabbergasted by what I saw. Then, in November 2001, after 8 or 9 years of MSPAP tests, the public finally started to get a hint that something funny was going on when the news media reported "alarming" and "unusual" results from the 2001 MSPAP test. In fact, the release of the scores themselves were held up pending a review by outside "experts". Here are some extracts from the press at that time.

"Big Drops, Jumps On Md. Exam Worry Schools", Washington Post, Nov 9 2001:

Montgomery County school officials were duly alarmed: Third and fifth-grade scores on Maryland's premiere standardized test had dropped significantly after an upward trend for the past five years. Third-grade scores fell below 1994 levels.

In Prince George's County, school officials wanted to know: What would cause scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program to fall so far, even in the county's most affluent areas, where schools have consistently posted higher-than-average scores?...

"We're trying to figure it out," state School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said after announcing that she would hire consultants to sort through the discrepancies. "There were places where the scores dropped where they weren't expected to and places where the scores increased where they weren't expected to."

"State education officials delay release of MSPAP scores", Gazette newspapers, Nov 8 2001:

The results of Maryland's annual tests measuring school performance, originally set to be released late this month, will not become public until next year because state education officials are concerned about "unusual patterns" found in some schools' early scores... The state has asked two national testing experts to reexamine the 2001 MSPAP results before it releases them.

This burst of media attention gave me the final kick to put my thoughts down in the hopes that they might help bring to an end this MSPAP craziness. I pulled my thoughts together first as a letter to the editor of the Prince George's Gazette, since I live in Prince George's County, Maryland. The paper is distributed free to most county households. I felt a letter in the Gazette would have a better chance of getting a grassroots protest movement going than one swallowed up in a major Washington daily - presuming any paper was willing to print anything so long. (They weren't.)

My MSPAP Letter

Subject: The MSPAP - enough is enough! Time for a boycott.
To: citizens of Prince George's County; citizens of Maryland. Also, everyone else, since MSPAP-like tests are coming your way.

The release of the 2001 MSPAP test scores have been held up because of "unexpected increases and decreases" at various schools (Gazette, Nov 8 2001). The first thought that comes to mind is: if the MSPAP people know in advance what the results should be, why do they even bother with the test? That's a bit flip, perhaps, but the recent problems and the hiring of outside consultants to figure them out are further evidence, if any is needed, that the MSPAP people themselves have no idea what sort of monster they've created. I can only hope that the repercussions from this latest fiasco will put this limping dog of a state-mandated test out of its misery. If we're really lucky, they will send state level educrats packing - but, heaven forbid, not up to the national level.

Just how insane is the MSPAP? Let me count the ways.

The stated purpose of the MSPAP is fundamentally absurd. Supposedly, the test is not designed to judge the abilities of individual students, but to grade the effectiveness of the school's teaching. Such a fantastic claim could only make sense if somehow the test were so sensitive that it could detect when good answers were given in spite of poor teaching, and inversely, when poor answers were given in spite of good teaching. Right. Tell me another one.

The MSPAP is a huge drain on school time, effectively burning up a whole week of school for the test itself, and probably the equivalent of several weeks of preparation for it. Preparation for the MSPAP goes on everywhere in spite of the fact that the test is preparation-proof. This is the one thing the test designers have been successful at. They make preparation impossible by putting almost nothing on the test the students should have learned as part of their curriculum.

I saw a 3rd-grade MSPAP test when I transcribed for a student. I've heard that 3rd-grade MSPAP tests have been analyzed and found to be written on a 7th-grade level. I claim the situation is much worse than that. What I saw would give an educated adult gas. I saw college-level material on it, which I will get to later. My dream is to kick down the door of the State House one day, order everyone to clear their desks, shackle them to their chairs, and trash a week of their time with a 3rd-grade MSPAP. Then I would publish all of their completed test booklets. Comparing their answers would keep us in stitches for a year.

MSPAP has gotten away with it for so long because of its invincible security. Those of us who get anywhere near the test have to sign away our hides, swearing never to reveal anything. But they can't stop me from saying what wasn't on the test. In the weeklong test, there were no addition problems at all. There were not more than two multiplication problems, neither of which was a basic fact from the multiplication table, and both of which were buried so deep in a task (MSPAP tasks can go on for pages, and days even) that few students would be likely to get that far and even recognize that what was being asked for involved multiplication.

As far as reading comprehension was concerned, there was not a single exercise in the weeklong test where the student was asked to read a passage and then answer a specific question about what he read.

So if the MSPAP test doesn't measure math skills and reading skills, what does it measure? Your guess is as good as mine. It's something about "higher-level thinking" or "critical thinking" or "applying knowledge." Almost all of the questions are of the "no right or wrong answer" kind. It seems that what the state wants to see in its students is a strong ability to do what in a gentler age was called "blowing smoke." The test would do well to rename itself the BSPAP. I've heard that at a recent conference, Prince George's County School Superintendent Dr. Metts didn't have an answer to the question, "What is MSPAP about, really?" If this is so, it is only to her credit. I would steer clear of anyone who claims to understand the MSPAP.

Since I can't get specific about what I saw on the 3rd-grade MSPAP, I must keep the discussion very general. One task expected the student to get familiar with the concept of a "trend", and then examine a fairly large table of data for a trend. That may almost sound reasonable for a 3rd-grader (maybe) - except for the fact that there was no trend in the data. The MSPAP people would not be concerned by that, though. They don't care what a student's actual answer is; if he blows some good smoke, he gets a satisfactory score.

Another MSPAP task used three pages of instructions to tell the student to write a story on anything he wants. You can appreciate that after three pages of instructions, the typical 3rd grader won't know what end is up. The preparatory steps were themselves far more confusing and difficult than the actual writing of the story.

The most insanely unreasonable task expected the student to bring a biology professor's wealth of knowledge with him to the test. The student had to draw biological parts (of what, I may not say) from memory, label those parts, and explain the role of those parts in a certain (unnamed) biological function - all of this without any written material at all in the test booklets from which to extract that information!

The 3rd-grade MSPAP hits economics and probability hard - two subjects I would trust few educated adults with. The test-makers pride themselves on combining as many unrelated disciplines as possible in a given task. This is somehow more like real life. I can see them still slapping each other on the back for mixing poetry and biology together in one goofy task. Good job, guys. If State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and her MSPAP squad want to refute anything I've said here, I guess they'll just have to expose their tests to the public.

Readers of the Gazette have seen lengthy letters from Mr. Kenneth Fox pointing out errors and overall shoddiness in publicly released MSPAP tasks (Jul 12 and Aug 16 2001). A few years ago two national panels were commissioned to examine the MSPAP. The first report thrashed MSPAP so soundly, and pointed out so many errors in the tests, that the state has kept the report classified - under the pretext that it discloses some test questions. Recently, the second study was released. According to the Baltimore Sun (Oct 3 2001), this study was, by all accounts, much more positive toward MSPAP. But, this panel called for more objective testing, and the inclusion of multiple choice questions. They recommended against releasing individual scores, calling them meaningless. They called for eliminating the group discussion parts of the tasks, and doing away with all the hands-on stuff called "manipulatives". They don't believe MSPAP can be used as a model for classroom instruction. They found no evidence that MSPAP really measures "higher-level thinking skills," and they felt that the emphasis on writing distorts scores. Finally, they recommended against expanding MSPAP to other grades. If that's more positive, I'm afraid to see what the first report had to say.

I've talked about just one of the 3rd-grade MSPAP tests given in 2001. You probably don't know that there are four different, week-long, 3rd-grade MSPAP tests given simultaneously in each elementary school. The same is true for the fifth and eighth grades, as well. What can be the point of that? Never mind the additional expense of creating four tests where one would do; the main point is that you can't relate test results from students who have taken different tests. The best you can do is kid yourself that such a comparison is valid by making a stack of shaky assumptions a mile high.

The MSPAP test is referred to as "heartless." This doesn't refer to the fact that kids taking the MSPAP still cry with frustration. It means that if a child is hit by a truck on the way to school on one of the mornings of the test, he gets a zero. As bad as that sounds, though, I suspect this "heartless" accusation is a ruse to draw attention away from something even more unsavory. Because the MSPAP stakes are so high (or perceived to be), the state can't trust its own teachers not to be tempted to encourage the weakest students to miss school, which might happen if there were no penalty for absence.

Before you feel too sorry for the crying kids, ask yourself which is the sadder situation: an eight-year-old who still cares enough about doing well that he can feel that frustrated; or the eight-year-old who takes a look at the test and thinks, "Nuts to this," or, "Who cares?" I believe that instilling children with such an attitude is the one and only thing MSPAP has any chance of accomplishing - if you want to view that as an "accomplishment."

The goal of the MSPAP is a 70 percent "satisfactory" rate. How bizarre. Wouldn't we would want 100 percent of our students to be satisfactory? After all, "satisfactory" is the category just above "unsatisfactory." Should a 30 percent "loser" rate cause dancing in the street? Will any of those find a useful role in society, or is MSPAP telling us that, once our glorious goal is met, 30 out of 100 Maryland public school children are earmarked for the criminal class?

After 10 years of the Maryland School Performance Plan, none of the 24 school systems are near the goal. The trend, for both Prince George's County and the state, has been almost perfectly flat for the last 6 or 7 years (Gazette, Nov 30 2000). A spokesman for the state said, "If you're knocking off a point or so each year, it's the most you can expect out of a good program." Wonderful. Even at a point per year - which the county is not maintaining - it will take 39 years to get our production of "unsatisfactories" down to 30 percent (from the current 69 percent.) For the whole state, it will take 25 years.

Looking over the 2000 MSPAP test results for Prince George's County schools, I notice that more than 25 percent of the elementary schools (29 out of 114 schools) scored below a 19% satisfactory rate. Curiously, only 4 percent of the middle schools (1 out of 24 schools) scored so low. Does MSPAP change the definition of "satisfactory" between elementary and middle school - or are our 6th-grade and 7th-grade teachers miracle workers?

One of the MSPAP high stakes is the cash award for showing improved scores. Ten Prince George's County elementary schools received awards in the $50,000 to $70,000 range for improvements shown on the 1999 MSPAP test. Some of these improvements were a mere 4 or 5 points, but more interesting is that the score of each of these schools, with only one exception, plummeted on the next MSPAP, in 2000. (See Gazette articles, Nov 2 2000 and Dec 7 2000.) Now, of course, even the MSPAP people are having to face up to the obvious - that such fluctuations are non-significant artifacts of a truly weird test. [It has since come out that the Maryland Department of Education does not believe strongly enough in its own MSPAP test to rank schools according to their MSPAP scores!]

The other issue is, should the schools that perform best get these bonuses? If there is extra money to toss around, shouldn't it go to the schools that need the most help? [For the record, this writer does not believe that shovelling money at the schools is an answer to our education problems. In the two decades that Prince George's County spending per student has skyrocketed, student performance has nosedived. On the other hand, Harford County has consistently been one of the best performing school systems in Maryland, while ranking 23rd - next to last - in per-pupil spending.]

I don't know how much Maryland spends on the MSPAP every year. It has to be mindboggling considering the enormous length of the test; the four different tests per grade; the complicated tasks involving all sorts of "manipulative" equipment; and the hiring of an army of teachers to grade the things all summer since there is not a single question that can be checked electronically. If the MSPAP test did measure math and reading skills - which it doesn't - we could get the same information from a short, fill-in-the-bubble standardized test. The nationwide Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) is already taken by Maryland students, and simply using this as our gauge of student performance would save Marylanders every penny of the money being spent on MSPAP. [In fact, Montgomery County principals use the CTBS to predict how well the students will do on the MSPAP. Researchers have found that if students score in the 60th percentile on the CTBS they will probably score a MSPAP satisfactory. Which screams the obvious question: So why bother with MSPAP???]

I hope I've made it clear that MSPAP is worse than worthless; the trouble it has caused for the last 10 years is criminal. If anyone - other than those deriving six-figure incomes from it - can come forward with one positive thing to say about MSPAP, let's hear it. Since the state gives no hint of backing off, it's time for the parents to pull the plug. Please let the school know that your child will not attend school during the week of MSPAP. Or send a letter to school with your child saying he is under no circumstances allowed in the testing room, even. If you can trust your child not to buckle under to pressure, real or perceived, have him take the test but with instructions to write just a single word on every page of the test booklet: "Protest." Better yet, have him draw a smiley face on every answer line. :) He can't get into any trouble since the test administrators are absolutely forbidden to encourage, nudge or pressure the students in any way, shape or form - even with a facial expression - while they take the test. (That would introduce unfairness, see?) Rest assured that a MSPAP zero will not effect his report card.

Also bear in mind that the worst thing a bunch of MSPAP zeros could cause is the school being put on the dreaded "reconstitution eligible" list. Big deal. It should matter little to you if the state does take over the school. Nobody they install could possibly be crazy enough to force MSPAP-like lessons in the classrooms. In any case, wouldn't it be interesting to call the state's bluff? Let them come in and take over hundreds of schools. If student performance doesn't improve immediately, we can tell Grasmick and her gang of laughingstock frauds to go sit down and shut up. [Scores fell at two of the three Baltimore City schools taken over by the state, and at one of them, none of the 3rd-graders scored a satisfactory in reading or math!]

Declare your intentions to boycott the MSPAP well in advance. If enough parents do the same, maybe your child's school will see that there is no point in wasting time "preparing" for it. The net result will be more time for regular classroom instruction. When schools start to score near-zero on the MSPAP because of overt parent/student revolution, the state will be forced to do some serious rethinking. They'd look pretty silly administering such a test every year if no one is taking it.

APPENDIX 1: Don't take it from me

Here is a brief, but even more scathing, excerpt from "Poor Performance Review" by Ralph A. Raimi, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, University of Rochester (The Washington Times, Sunday, April 1 2001).

"MSPAP is an examination system that Maryland has been using for almost a decade to assess student performance. It consists of a set of "performance tasks" given all Maryland school children at the levels of grades 3, 5, and 8.

"We spent days studying copies of all the exams given in the past few years, with actual student answers and scoring data selected for each file to show typical student performance - and graders' performance in assessing the quality of the answers.

"The system was of no value for its announced purpose. In most subjects, the tasks did not come close to testing for knowledge of the things asked for in Maryland's own standards ... The grading was inconsistent, with correct answers often not recognized as such by some of the graders, and incorrect answers given full credit. The questions themselves were often incoherent, trivial or based on erroneous understanding of the subject matter ...

"School mathematics education in the United States has recently fallen prey to some sadly ineffective and mischievous notions. To oppose them is not to advocate return to some mythical past golden age. The state of mathematics education has never been good, and reform of some sort is always in the wind. But it does not follow that those of us who as mathematicians (and citizens) find current dogma mistaken are seeking to return to some earlier error.

"Maryland's MSPAP is fatally flawed, and it is time for Maryland to realize it has made a mistake, and to repair it."

APPENDIX 2: Other pages of interest

For a memo to Grasmick from Bob Embry, former head of the Maryland State Board of Education, and who was involved in getting the MSPAP started, click here.

For a story in the American School Board Journal about the problems caused by "reconstituting" schools in Prince George's County, click here.

For the party line on MSPAP, click here.

APPENDIX 3 - (keyword snare)

These are just some words and phrases for snagging people searching for information on the MSPAP: mspap parent handbook; better schools; preparing for mspap; how to prepare for mspap; the benefits of mspap; how to improve mspap scores; how to improve mspap performance; the mspap and you; the mspap and your school; your child and the mspap; maryland (heart) mspap; maryland loves mspap; I love mspap; mspap is good for you; mspap is great, wonderful, excellent, peachy keen!

Afterword 1 (February 2002) -
Upon the public release of the 2001 MSPAP scores

On Jan 28 2002, the MSPAP scores for 2001 were finally released. The official conclusion was that the test and its scoring was perfectly valid. Generally, scores dropped on every front. The composite score for the state dropped. The composite score for almost all counties dropped. In the state, 120 elementary schools saw their scores drop by more than 10 percentage points. (Keep in mind that a "ten-point drop" for a typical school which had scored a 40% satisfactory rate in 2000, and fell to 30% in 2001, is really a 25% decrease in performance. A "ten-point drop" from 20% to 10% is really a 50% decrease in performance.) The Washington Post reported (Jan 29 2002):

Of 118 elementary schools in Montgomery County [one of Maryland's most affluent], 100 had test scores decline this year, with 26 schools posting drops of more than 10 points. Even more disconcerting to county officials, some of the schools with the biggest drops are considered among the county's best and had no changes in principals, third- and fifth-grade teachers or number of troubled students in classes.

Prince George's County Superintendent Iris T. Metts was similarly mystified by the swings in scores in her county. For instance, Fort Foote Elementary in Fort Washington, which has won national awards, dropped from 60.6 percent to 36 percent in 2001. "Same Principal, same faculty, same hard work, same efforts, and they had a double-digit drop," Metts said.

The Baltimore Sun (Jan 29 2002) quoted Steven Johnson, director of curriculum and staff development for Carroll County: "If you look at our 8th-grade MSPAP reading scores, you'd say that only 29 percent of our kids can read. Well, we know that isn't true. Other tests judge things differently."

The Post exposed some dirt on the scoring process of the MSPAP tests (Jan 28 2002):

In recent days, at the encouragement of Montgomery school officials, some teachers who were trained by the state to score the test have come forward with concerns that the scoring is rushed and often arbitrary.

Teachers reported that scorers are trained to be accurate 70 percent of the time, and that rushed teachers often look for certain key words and give points without thoroughly reading an answer.

"We were told we should grade a test in 4 minutes," said Marc Elrich, a teacher who was trained to score the MSPAP. "There is absolutely no rigor in the grading. It's completely arbitrary."

Four minutes??? To grade a test that took a week to do??? What can you say... There was a followup article devoted to this matter, which you can read by clicking here. Warning - it will make you sick to your stomach.

Still, State School Superintendent Grasmick pleaded pathetically: "Please, whatever we do, let's not blame the test. It isn't the test. We have every confidence it isn't the test." (Does saying something over and over make it come true?) Notice that by maintaining a stance of total confidence in the test, she puts herself in the position of having to believe that the MSPAP program is starting to make Maryland students stupider!

One of her cronies did offer up a monumentally embarrassing "explanation" for the test score swings (Post, Jan 31 2002). "Leroy J. Tomkins, associate superintendent of accountability and assessment, was quick to point out that any standardized test has a margin of error. 'Scores will fluctuate frequently for reasons that you cannot explain,' he said."

If we're to believe that, why give standardized tests at all?

I view what has happened in the wake of the release of the scores as a worst case scenario. All the talk of inexplicable swings in scores, and shocking glimpses into how the tests are scored, and announcements for plans of an overhaul of the MSPAP only serve to deflect attention away from the main issues - that a) scoring issues aside, the MSPAP is totally worthless as a test, and b) the trouble it has caused over the last 10 years qualifies it as a crime against the people of Maryland.

It disgusts me to think that the MSPAP people will be able to weasel their way out of this without punishment, or humiliation, or ever owning up to how insane the test has been and how much trouble they've caused. In my original MSPAP letter, I did what I could to drum up a parent/student boycott of the MSPAP. But now, crushing MSPAP seems an even more distant dream. How do you crush something while it oozes and morphs and is "overhauled" into something else? [It turns out that, in April 2002, state educators latched onto the new federal No Child Left Behind Act as an excuse to jettison the MSPAP. See Afterword 2 below.]

Still, the call for a parent/student boycott of the 2002 MSPAP stands. It will be several years before MSPAP can be revamped. I don't know if they will continue with the old-style MSPAP every year until then [Nope. See Afterword 2 below], but the word is that it's on-track for this year. That gives us at least one opportunity to register our outrage. A boycott now won't have the same effect it would have had if the test were still going full-steam ahead, but it will make an important, if belated, statement. Our educrats had better get it through their skulls that we're fed up with their ridiculous - and damaging - experiments in education.

Afterword 2 (May 2002) -
Upon the announcement of the discontinuation of the MSPAP

This is a letter I wrote to the Baltimore Sun responding to its article announcing the termination of the MSPAP - three days before the start of the test itself.

Dear Baltimore Sun,

The article "Md. teachers look to new test, try to stir interest in MSPAP" (April 26 2002) makes the obligatory effort to be balanced, alternating positive and negative comments about the test. The positive comments, however, fall into two categories: cheerleading, and overblown claims that are easy to shoot down.

We read of the test's "value and importance," and that the MSPAP "prepare[s] our children to be thinkers." At least three times we read of the MSPAP improving instruction, but if that is so, why had the test scores been almost completely flat for six or seven years - before the downward turn last year?

The article very generously did not delve into the many negatives associated with the MSPAP: tremendous expense; tremendous time wasted on the test; even more classroom time wasted on preparation for the test; and young kids crying with frustration. It did acknowledge the only identifiable "accomplishment" of the MSPAP that I can discern: instilling students with a "Who cares?" attitude.

Neither space - nor signed statements - allow me to reveal the insanely unrealistic demands of the third-grade MSPAP test I saw in 2001. In any case, I can do no better than Ralph A. Raimi, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, University of Rochester, who reported: "We spent days studying copies of all the exams given in the past few years... The system was of no value for its announced purpose. In most subjects, the tasks did not come close to testing for knowledge of the things asked for in Maryland's own standards... The grading was inconsistent, with correct answers often not recognized as such by some of the graders, and incorrect answers given full credit. The questions themselves were often incoherent, trivial or based on erroneous understanding of the subject matter."

Can anyone come forward with a single, verifiable benefit of the ten years of MSPAP? I am not just flogging a dead horse here. Don't teachers, principals, students, parents and taxpayers deserve at least an apology? Will the people responsible for the MSPAP fiasco get off scot free?

Scarier still, will the same people be entrusted with controlling the extra $1.3 billion per year recently legislated for an "adequately" funded education system in Maryland? And remember that the now-defunct MSPAP was used to derive that figure! An extra $1.3 billion per year was the magic bullet for getting 70% of the students to pass the MSPAP test. Are we supposed to laugh or cry?

Finally, do we really want people who say "constructive responses" when they mean "essay answers" in charge of educating Maryland's children? [End letter.]

That final comment was aimed at assistant state superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer, "who has done preliminary work on the new test." He said, "No one wants to give up constructive responses, but the tasks on the new test won't be as complicated as those on MSPAP."

On the subject of plain-speak, there was a later article, "State unveils testing reforms" (Baltimore Sun, Sep 18 2002), announcing the replacement exam for MSPAP. It's called the MSA - who cares what it stands for.

The new MSA is the centerpiece of a plan for the next decade of public school reform in Maryland. [State schools Superintendent] Grasmick began her day in Annapolis [Maryland's capital] yesterday before the state's Board of Public Works, where she got unanimous and enthusiastic approval to pay two companies $53 million over the next four years to put together and produce the tests...

"You are so good," Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sits on the three-member panel, told Grasmick during her presentation. "I don't know what you were talking about, but I'm for it."

Ha ha ha. I'm holding my sides. Here's a man who was Mayor of Baltimore City for 16 years and Governor of Maryland for eight years and even he can't understand that woman's babbling. Is it beginning to fit together, why the weeklong MSPAP didn't test students for a scrap of knowledge, only their babbling ability? And to think that Grasmick remains in charge of setting the standards for the communication skills of our students...

Also of interest in the article, "Md. teachers look to new test" (which provoked the above letter) is this passage:

"Maryland was forced to switch tests by the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January by President Bush. The law requires reading and math testing of all children in grades three through eight. Individual scores must be available, and test results from any year must be published before the next school year; MSPAP met neither requirement."

Whew! You can hear Grasmick sighing with relief two counties away at this opportunity to save face: it's nothing to do with our glorious test, people, it's the feds making us give it up! Of course, if MSPAP were such a great thing, they could have made the necessary alterations to meet those requirements, don't you think? And doesn't this passage sure smell different from Grasmick's eventual claim that she wanted to halt the last MSPAP in 2002, but federal officials forced Maryland to go ahead with it? (See Afterword 4 below.) The feds were forcing Maryland to switch tests, but simultaneously forcing Maryland to go ahead with it??? In any case, there hadn't been a word in the press about Grasmick wanting to halt the 2002 MSPAP test.

Another article in the Baltimore Sun, "Final MSPAP testing largely goes as usual" (Apr 30 2002) broke my poor heart. In light of what did come out about the MSPAP prior to the 2002 test, why would one, single, solitary parent allow his child to have taken the final one? That says to me that nobody gives a hoot; that we all tacitly agree that schools are nothing more than day-care centers or holding pens for children.

Parents, in light of what did come out regarding the MSPAP in the preceding months, can you explain what possible reason there was for letting your child go through with the 2002 MSPAP test? Please email me, and I will put all your answers up on my web site.

Afterword 3 (June 2002) -
Upon world-class gall

Whenever I figure I'm done with this subject, there's always something else. I've more or less resigned myself to the reality that the criminals responsible for the MSPAP will never have to answer for anything - that nobody gives a hoot. But I have to pass on a news item here that takes the cake, one that describes a brand new, all-time, world's record for gall. It was by Mike Bowler in the Baltimore Sun (May 26 2002, page 2B):

Harvesting MSPAP for salable passages

Those who think the late Maryland School Performance Assessment Program isn't worth the paper it's written on, get a load of this:

One of the reasons state officials won't allow release of a two-year-old highly critical analysis of MSPAP is that they might be able to sell parts of the exam to other states.

On May 3, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick wrote Robert C. Embry, Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, to warn against publication of the report commissioned by Abell as part of a $300,000 study.

Even though the test is being replaced, Grasmick said, "We are ... exploring the marketplace value of MSPAP with other states and entities, as it has been lauded so widely as one of the nation's premier assessments."

Grasmick said she would be happy to contact Embry "when we come to the point at which our test developers believe the report can be accessed without fear of a security breach."

A spokesman for the Education Department said it has accumulated a large bank of MSPAP questions and tasks, some of which are referred to specifically in the Abell analysis. [End article.]

Other states, beware! When Maryland comes a-knockin' trying to sell this MSPAP snake oil, just laugh in her face. Better yet, spit.

Afterword 4 (December 2002) -
Upon the release of the final, 2002 MSPAP scores

After the scores for the final, 2002 MSPAP were released, the Maryland State Department of Education spewed such a batch of nonsense (and lies?) that I was once again moved to write a letter to the editor. You'll see that I reused some material from the letter in Afterword 2 (which was never published.)

Dear Baltimore Sun,

Back in April, state schools Superintendent Nancy G. Grasmick emphasized "the value and importance" of the upcoming, final MSPAP test. She said, "We will be able to connect the results of this year's MSPAP with the results" of the test that will replace it. "Schools will be able to continue to track their progress toward the same rigorous standards that have been in place over the past several years" (Baltimore Sun, Apr 26 2002). The article "Final MSPAP testing largely goes as usual" (Apr 30 2002) confirmed that principals and school superintendents were taking the last MSPAP test completely seriously.

But when the results of the 2002 MSPAP test were released and showed precipitous drops in reading and math scores, we got a different song and dance. "State officials played down the low scores, saying systems should not give the scores the same weight as in previous years... Officials said students and teachers showed less interest once it became widely known that last spring's MSPAP would be the final installment" ("Md. test shows gap in schools", Dec 6 2002).

State officials also blamed the company hired to score the tests, Measurement, Inc., of North Carolina. "Officials blamed the use of out-of-state scorers unfamiliar with the test; Maryland teachers had graded the exams previously." How does this jibe with what we were told back in March? "To meet widespread allegations of sloppiness in the grading of the test by Maryland teachers, Grasmick has contracted with a private firm to do all of the grading out of state." ("Seeking to salvage MSPAP", Gazette newspapers, Mar 7 2002.)

We read that Grasmick tried to discontinue the 2002 MSPAP, but federal education officials wouldn't let her - a very strange claim when you remember that state educators latched onto the new federal No Child Left Behind Act as an excuse for ditching the MSPAP. [See Afterword 2 above.] And why then was Grasmick so irritated with Montgomery County after it opted out of the 8th-grade MSPAP testing? The spat was described in the Gazette newspapers (Mar 21 2002). "Montgomery County thought it would be easy to dismiss the testing altogether," said Grasmick. "Wrong."

So there's blame for everybody - saboteur teachers, despotic feds, and scorers too stupid to grade third-grade tests - but none for Maryland's own education officials.

MSPAP tests have been, and remain, top secret. That alone should have rung warning bells over the last ten years. I am one of the few adults to have seen a complete third-grade MSPAP test. The expectations were insanely unrealistic. I read every article I can about the MSPAP and have yet to discern a single verifiable benefit derived from it. The negative and destructive results are easy to list: tremendous expense; weeks out of the school year devoted to it; kids crying with frustration; other kids learning early to cop a "Who cares?" attitude; and schools unsettled by the takeover threat. Anyone who has ever defended the validity of the MSPAP program now finds himself in a mighty predicament: he is forced to admit that the 10-year experiment has made Maryland students about as dumb or dumber than when it started.

MSPAP is dead, but don't teachers, principals, students, parents and taxpayers deserve at least an apology? We live in a society where no one is held responsible for anything he does anymore, so it's too much to hope that the people responsible for the MSPAP debacle be punished appropriately, but should the same people be left in power to continue their experiments on Maryland public school students? [End letter.]

I also expressed to the Baltimore Sun my exasperation at how easily the media let the Maryland State Department of Education off the hook. I asked if it was too much to hope that the Sun might open the case back up long enough to answer a few final questions.

1. Did the big drop in scores for the last MSPAP have anything to do with absenteeism from the test? An absence had always been scored as a MSPAP zero (even if a child is hit by a truck on the way to school.) This may help substantiate or refute the MSDE claim that scores dropped because the last test wasn't taken seriously.

2. Can the Sun produce a principal or teacher who admits he didn't take it seriously? It's hard to imagine that any principal or teacher would want to sabotage his own school's scores.

3. Might the Sun interview Measurement, Inc. to hear their side of the story; to hear what a fresh and unbiased outsider has to say about that crazy test?

4. Would the Sun look into Grasmick's claim that she tried to eliminate the 2002 MSPAP? There was nothing about that in the newspapers last April.


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