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MSPAP leads way to change in school

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEN YEARS AGO, as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) was put in place, it was a nervous time for many classroom teachers and administrators. Inherent in testing our pupils was, of course, testing those of us who spend every day in the classroom.

Moreover, it seemed intrusive and condescending; another educational fad, dreamed up without the slightest idea of the realities of an urban school. To my colleagues and parents at Mount Royal Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore, MSPAP felt like a deliberate reminder of what our children were not achieving.

But MSPAP did not go away. Teachers, parents, and administrators had to sit down and ask critical questions: Should we change? How do we work differently? Can our children succeed, and what are we willing to do to help them? The standards and testing triggered the discussion, but it led to challenging our own basic assumptions about how we were teaching children in our school.

Has MSPAP changed my classroom? Absolutely. I would not have it any other way. Today, my pupils are achieving at levels that I never thought possible 10 years ago. The results were gradual, but dramatic. In a three-year period, Mount Royal fifth-graders' math scores rose from 58 percent to more than 93 percent. Less easy to measure, but no less important, were other changes that mirrored the rise in test scores.

Critics of MSPAP and other standardized tests often raise the specter of "teaching to the test" or halting standard instruction and "wasting" time preparing students for testing. Some argue further that the teaching of basic skills is sacrificed to prepare for the testing process.

In fact, when we look at MSPAP as a set of skills rather than just a testing instrument, changes are entirely appropriate. We are testing for a set of skills articulated by business leaders throughout Maryland. These leaders shared with educators what strengths they needed in employees in the 21st century. Among these are better communication skills and team-based problem-solving ability. These are fundamental educational goals, based on the National Standards in Math, Science, Language Arts and Social Studies. Building the skills to achieve these goals can and should begin in the first grade.

Our pupils must be able to read and write, whether the test is in the classroom or in their future workplace. How they apply the skills has changed because the world and workplace in which they will succeed has changed.

Some would balk at the idea that we are preparing young children for a working world 15 or 20 years in the future. So what is the right age to learn cooperation? Or following directions? Or explaining how to solve a problem?

A decade ago, youngsters rarely wrote on a regular basis. Today, children are writing paragraphs in the first grade.

We want our children to have a strong foundation in the early grades, and we want them to have real-world skills. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. More to the point, by our willingness to move beyond the old techniques of learning by rote or simple memorization, we find our pupils, parents and teachers engaged and excited by what is happening in the classroom. It is interesting, when I consider my classroom, to think back 10 years to teaching before MSPAP. Ten years ago, most activities were not hands-on. Because of MSPAP, my colleagues and I had to make daily lessons more tangible for our pupils.

Like most veteran teachers, my teaching style had to change as my pupils' outside life changed. I had to keep them engaged and make the connection between the classroom and the world in which they live. I designed interdisciplinary lessons to show the relationships between math and music, history and language, science and art. These were changes that I made as a teacher that mirrored and supported the set of skills that MSPAP put in place.

Ten years ago, most student activities were individual. Because MSPAP calls for cooperative group activities, we began changing the way pupils work together. Today, children work in groups or with a partner on a regular basis, much in the way that we all work each day.

Elementary school reading material 10 years ago was generally fiction. Reading and language skills, like other academic areas, were taught in isolation. But MSPAP skills include content reading ability, perhaps in science or social studies. Thus, it is not only the ability to read and respond that we teach today, but we are using material that reflects what we want children to learn across the curriculum.

Perhaps most striking to many people is that today, our pupils learn not only the basics of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, but also geometry, measurement and probability beginning in first grade. There was a time when these were skills that teachers would get to as time allowed, or were reserved for those children identified as gifted. Today, we begin teaching the skills to every child.

Is it a result of MSPAP? Certainly, because the assessment does test these skills. But it is precisely what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended in the late 1980s, to build skills and pupil confidence and to create a sense of continuity across the curriculum. Starting with these basic mathematical skills early means that our children have more opportunity to succeed as they build on these skills in later grades.

Some critics of MSPAP describe the set of skills and the testing itself as "overly ambitious" and too "rigorous" for Baltimore City pupils. Some call for throwing out any testing of these skills for children in the third grade, meaning that there would be no objective assessment of progress until a child is 10. More disturbing are some suggestions that additional financial resources for city schools might be at risk because of MSPAP. These criticisms are particularly unfortunate because they betray a fundamental lack of confidence in the children of Baltimore City.

To examine these criticisms requires looking at the students we are teaching. Our city public school population is largely low-income. The majority of our public school students are African-American. To imply that students are less capable, that we must lower our expectations, that testing leads to failure, is to make a dangerous assertion about poor children and African-American children. When these suggestions are made by those who claim an interest in educational excellence, it is even more frightening.

My experience is quite the opposite. My pupils, all African-American, are in a school where about 80 percent come from households that qualify for nutrition assistance, and they are succeeding. They are succeeding with high standards and with a willingness on the part of teachers and administrators to innovate. They are succeeding because their parents know that they can achieve. The progress has been steadily upward since MSPAP caused me, as a teacher, to reconsider how I taught basic skills.

Do I measure achievement based on MSPAP scores? No, although my 1998-1999 pupils ranked No. 1 in Maryland in math, and well above state averages in other areas.

Rather, we are succeeding by the excitement that one can see as our children master new skills, by the increase in parent involvement, and by the enthusiasm my colleagues and I feel with each new lesson. We are succeeding as we see teachers, parents and children working together after school and on Saturday to bring classroom skills to real-life situations.

Perhaps some of these achievements are hard to measure. But their effects, in and out of the classroom, are certainly positive.

Linda Eberhart teaches at Mount Royal Elementary-Middle School and advises schools and teachers na tionwide. She writes from Baltimore City.

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