City school system to monitor administration of near-obsolete MSAs

The Baltimore city school system will continue to monitor all schools administering the Maryland School Assessments this year, a measure that was questioned because the test scores won't be used to gauge schools' progress amid a transition to a new curriculum.

Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards said the school district would continue the monitoring because although the MSA will soon be phased out, "as of today, it is not obsolete."

The school system began deploying monitors to every school during testing in 2011, at a cost of about $400,000 per year, after school officials and The Baltimore Sun found that several schools that had administered the tests to students in grades three through eight had either cheated or were being investigated for improprieties.

Last year, the district also began monitoring the administration of the High School Assessments, though they said the measure was not prompted by suspicions of cheating.

The discussion about whether to continue monitoring in a year when there are virtually no stakes attached to scores -- state officials say they're only giving the test to comply with the federal law and gather some useful data -- came during a presentation of a new "test integrity" policy that the city school board will vote on in the coming months.

“I wonder about the allocation of resources ... when our focus at this time is elsewhere," Shanaysha Sauls, president of the city school board, said of the proposed monitoring this year.

Like the rest of the state, the city began full implementation of new curricula tied to the Common Core standards this year -- districts have been rolling out new curricula tied to the standards for the past two years -- which are aligned to new assessments that will be piloted in the spring.

At the start of the school year, state and local education leaders debated the state's $6 million decision to give the MSAs this year because the tests will be misaligned with curricula. When 2012-2013 MSA scores dropped throughout the state, education officials attributed the declines to the disconnect between what students were learning and what they're were being tested on.

The state decided that while the tests would be given, they would not use them to rank schools and will also seek a waiver to delay tying the tests to teacher evaluations. 

Still, Edwards said, that the monitoring has become a part of the district's testing culture, and monitors --hired substitutes and retired principals -- provide a level of comfort for schools in case any issues arise.

“Our experience is that schools have really appreciated having monitors in the building," Edwards told school board members. “As long as there are state-mandated tests, these regulations and policies are putting forth recommendations that we [have] a monitoring protocol."

City school board Commissioner David Stone said he believed the decision to monitor this year was "just one more example of us ratcheting up the stakes on high stakes tests.”

He added that he also believed the notion of testing integrity should be expanded.

This summer, The Sun found that dozens of students at one city school were undeservedly given passing grades in order to be promoted to the next grade.

“I think testing integrity goes well beyond the high-stakes tests,” Stone said.

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