Parents join forces against MSPAP test State denies public access to evaluations; Boycott, protests urged; Officials may let parent see scores of their children

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the seventh annual round of Maryland school-quality testing begins tomorrow, parents who are dissatisfied with the reform program are emerging as a vocal and organized lobby to change it.

Last week, this network of small groups opposed to the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program won a partial victory: After denying public access to the MSPAP tests since their inception, state school officials will consider letting parents see children's scored tests.

In addition, a MSPAP Review Panel of parents, legislators, educators, and business and religious leaders will be formed by the state to examine the first draft of the test each summer.

Across the state, MSPAP fans and foes alike welcomed the state's change of heart, saying its earlier stance bred suspicion and frustration. For the activists, however, it is only a beginning.

"It's very promising -- if it's done judiciously. I want to know whether this panel will be a rubber stamp," said Kathy Yuill, a co-founder of Concerned Parents of Maryland, one of at least a dozen small groups that have asked members to keep their children out of school on the days of the test and to demonstrate tomorrow at state school headquarters.

Since 1990, test security has always superseded parental concerns. Parents and even some lawmakers have been told they may not observe testing or see test materials.

The state education department tried to design a report card that shows parents their students' scores, but it has not been possible to create one that is accurate. The test was not designed to judge students, but to measure how closely local teaching and curricula conform to state standards according to a state spokesman.

Including more parents in the development of the test was part of the state's plan all along, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said.

Christopher T. Cross, president of the state school board, said: "Increased involvement will help assure the public that these assessments are exactly the kinds of academic experiences they want for students."

The parents groups that have opposed Maryland's school curriculum and testing reforms, meanwhile, said that until now they have been treated as if they were dissidents, political jTC extremists or crazies.

They are none of these, they say. Their opposition springs from a variety of political, philosophical and religious views about the role of the state, the school and the parent.

For the children

Some are conservative and some liberal. Some are more willing to compromise on curriculum and test content than others. Some want MSPAP changed, others want it killed. But they have much in common:

Almost all are upset that students in grades three, five and eight are prepped up to a year in advance and then tested for five days for an assessment of the school's quality, not the child's knowledge. They ask: What are my children getting out of this?

Most are unhappy with the annual MSPAP hoopla and the pressure placed on children by schools vying to win grants from the state schools department for high and improved scores or to avoid the punishment of possible state takeover.

Many oppose the way some schools have interpreted state standards: Some schools are substituting hours of MSPAP preparation for instruction in basic reading and math.

Some parents fear that the test's content may be inappropriate for their children. For example, one mother was troubled by a MSPAP training exercise asking children to read a passage from a murder story and to write their feelings about the characters.

Another parent felt her child's school went too far teaching one of the state standards -- writing to persuade. Students were asked to write letters to elected officials, and the parent wanted to know what viewpoints teachers suggest to the children.

"This is not an issue of culture or religion or anything like that, it's a parent issue: What is on the test, and why won't you let me see it?" said Yuill, who kept her third-grader home from the five-day tests last year, then transferred both of her children out of a city public school in September. They now attend a private school.

Other parents have made similar decisions, risking truancy charges or choosing to lie: Some call principals to say that their children are sick during test week.

Over the years, these parents have found each other at public hearings, in church, at political gatherings, and over kitchen tables in the city, and in Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and other counties.

This year, they began joining forces. They drew additional strength by standing with Baltimore groups opposed to the state-aid tussle that recently ended with the state gaining a share of control of the city school system.

The city-based Save Our Children Coalition, made up of teachers and parents, opposes the tests because for so long the state demanded that Baltimore schools improve without providing a significant increase in total school aid, said spokesmen Charles Dugger, a teacher.

"We are not against the testing, but we are against the way the test has been used politically to denigrate the city and to justify the withholding of funds from city schools," says Ed Freeman, president of Baltimore's Friends in Education, which supports boycotters.

Grasmick said, "When you are trying to do something of this magnitude, it is not reasonable that you will please everybody."

Misinformation

Some of the MSPAP protesters are spreading misinformation, she said, adding, "We've never intended to dismiss basics." Most school systems try to provide a balance of fundamentals and critical-thinking skills because both affect school scores on the tests of math, science, reading, social studies, writing and language arts.

Her department will launch a second panel, to include parents, teachers and others, to work with state staff on testing materials and practices, she said.

These panels represent a broadening of the MSPAP process -- opening it up to more than just educators, so that issues could be looked at by "the broader community," she said.

State Del. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican, who held a hearing for MSPAP opponents last year and who unsuccessfully has sponsored bills to kill or alter the tests, cheered the decision.

Parents who contact her complain they are sometimes treated with condescension when they question the mechanics, intent and content of MSPAP and state school reform, she said. Some opponents are afraid that teachers or principals will retaliate against their children.

"The arrogance, this mind set is what's causing most of the problem. Too many educators have the attitude that 'I know what's best for your children,' " Greenip said.

The state spends about $4 million a year to administer MSPAP, and much more to develop it and to reward improving and high scorers, at least $20 million altogether, Greenip estimated. And several lawmakers want to know that it is well spent.

The parent groups also turned to Del. James E. Rzepkowski, an Anne Arundel Republican, who sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have permitted them to legally excuse their children from the annual test. At the hearing, he asked Grasmick whether he could observe MSPAP testing and was told no.

"I want the test to be something meaningful that parents can use," he said.

Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, representing more than 60,000 teachers, and a strong supporter of the MSPAP testing program, sided with the parents on this issue, too.

"I think we have a very important responsibility to make the test less mystical, magical," he said. "If you want a tool to measure school effectiveness, I think MSPAP is it, but we have to let people know what it is, and what it isn't. The more they know about it, the more they may come to understand how useful it is."

Some of the parents say that may not be true. Some hope for a chance to influence what goes into the test. Depending on their philosophical or political orientation, others predict that the more they learn, the more opposed they ultimately may be. But they want the chance to judge for themselves, to opt out if the content offends them.

Mary Roig, a Concerned Parents co-founder, kept a child home from the test last year and in September transferred him from a Baltimore public school to a parochial school.

She doubts she would let him return, even if MSPAP is more open.

"At the end of the third grade and before MSPAP, it was concerning me, my son couldn't do multiplication tables," she said. Yet he was getting good grades and was being taught to "feel good" about math.

MSPAP, she said, "is driving the curriculum, and the program is driving our child's way of thinking, of dealing with life. It's taking away parental responsibilities. Parents have got the final say and you've got to start listening to us."

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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