A New Way of Measuring


At school's end today, educators throughout Maryland will have survived the fourth year of the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program tests in grades three, five, and eight. I will participate in that collective sigh of relief. The test is very controversial. New and different things often are.

One of the criticisms is that it evaluates schools and not individual students.

Traditionally, standardized tests designed to rank students evaluated them for the purpose of sorting and tracking for instruction. Such testing has fostered a tracking culture which has always resulted in sequences of classes that range from slow-paced remedial courses to rigorous academic ones. Minorities have traditionally been overrepresented in the lower tracks.

According to a study by the Ford Foundation, the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy charged that "the American system has become a hostile gatekeeper limiting opportunities for many young people, especially women and minorities."

In the last decade, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, and the Children's Defense Fund have all identified tracking as the most important "second-generation" segregation issue. Tracking is a school structure in which some students are denied equal access to knowledge. It dooms some children to school failure. Without the entrenchment of traditional standardized testing in American education, the tracking culture in our schools would not have existed.

Standardized testing has been harmful not only to lower-track students, however. The traditional tests never asked students to answer questions, but to choose from a group of possible answers. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University calls it "testing for the TV generation. We don't ask if students can synthesize information, solve problems or think independently. We measure what they can recognize."

Standardized tests focus on basic skills and factual knowledge; they measure routine skills that were considered essential in an industrial age. Higher-level skills will be needed to thrive in a technological and informational age. Yet in some cases these outdated tests are still being used. Basing curriculum on such tests results in a disastrous emphasis on teaching low-level industrial-age skills to our children. Problem solving, creative and critical thinking have often been reserved for the upper tracks.

The Maryland State Performance Assessment Program is taking us away from those biased and limiting tests. Maryland is not the only state to recognize the limitations of traditional standardized tests. Across the nation, alternatives to traditional classroom tests are being examined. Some are similar to MSPAP tests; others include portfolio assessment, video portfolio assessment and performance assessment.

These "authentic assessments," as they are often called, measure individual students and involve them in writing, problem solving, finding and citing evidence, speaking and listening. While paper-and-pencil tests still may be used, students have more opportunities to build on their strengths when they have a greater variety of assessments.

The MSPAP induces teachers to examine their instructional practices. and enhance the way learning happens. If this is teaching to the test, so be it.

The MSPAP is not perfect; no one ever said it was. Its validity has been questioned, as has the wisdom of testing third-graders, the testing conditions for learning-disabled students and the random grouping of students during testing so that some students take the test with an unfamiliar teacher. But where did the "validity" of the standardized tests lead us? And are teachers making the modifications that learning-disabled students need every day in the classroom?

Anything in its infancy is bound to have flaws. Adjustments and revisions continue to be made each year, and teachers are encouraged to criticize the tests.

Even my own criticism may someday be addressed. As a writer, I know my best work is always produced after several revisions. Real writing is what happens when the draft is revised. Time limitations mean that the MSPAP only measures a very quick first revision -- if not only a draft. But the fact that our children are writing on a test at all is encouraging.

The MSPAP is making us look not only at our instruction differently, but also at our students. It makes us wonder about the way we used to teach. Sometimes we're not so proud of ourselves.

In our hearts, we know we can't go on the way we once did.

Anne Werps is instructional facilitator at Dundalk Middle School.

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