JUST OVER A decade into Maryland's experiment with educational reform on the grand scale, the other shoe has finally dropped.
A $300,000 study of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program paid for by Baltimore's Abell Foundation casts a giant shadow of doubt on the reformist agenda currently dictating educational practices across our state.
The professors engaged by the foundation to evaluate MSPAP twitted the program for its weak academic content and inexpert scoring procedures, concluding that students utterly bereft of content knowledge routinely pass the tests merely by concocting their essays in the approved format. The biology professor who checked the science tests, for example, expressed shock and chagrin over the quality of responses that were awarded full credit.
The bureaucracy's response? The Abell report represented an "extremely conservative point of view" propounded by those who would limit education to "memorization and regurgitation," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told The Sun. Mark Moody, the state's testing chief, likened the critical report to "creationists reviewing the theory of evolution."
Baloney! The Abell Foundation isn't saying anything that teachers across Maryland haven't been tearing their hair out over for more than a decade.
Last fall, our state's Higher Education Commission informed us that in Anne Arundel County, where I teach, 38 percent of our 1998 graduates attending Maryland colleges and universities required remediation in mathematics after leaving high school.
Twenty-six percent had to be placed in remedial reading classes when they got to college, while one in five required instruction in basic English. (I'm not biting the hand that feeds me; Anne Arundel is not unique in any of this.)
So the proposition that academic skills are taking a shellacking from our fixation with MSPAP doesn't shock me, and I'll bet it doesn't surprise the many thousands of Maryland parents who are shelling out big bucks for tuition and books in courses that won't count a whit toward graduation.
The not-so-subtle hint that MSPAP's critics are all part of some sinister right-wing conspiracy is absurd. Since when does a university professorship automatically confer a conservative bias? Such folks tend to be the last unregenerate liberals left on the planet, for heaven's sake! And Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, is no knee-jerk conservative -- he supported MSPAP in its formative stages.
So while the criticisms were substantive, the only response our bureaucrats could come up with was to hurl insults at their critics.
But these tantrums reveal an important truth: Surely our educational leaders are far too enmeshed ideologically in their MSPAP handiwork to react responsibly to objective criticism of the program. It is for this reason that the superintendent's presumption that she is the appropriate party to impanel a committee to respond to the Abell Foundation's charges is untenable.
We do need a commission to study how MSPAP is doing, and where educational reform in Maryland is headed. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening needs to appoint its members, not Grasmick.
Glendening's tribunal should consist of scrupulously fair Marylanders who have no entangling professional or personal ties to the educational hierarchy. Its members should be empowered to get to the bottom of any and all aspects of MSPAP-related issues. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, county superintendents and employers should all be pressed for their assessments in an open and honest forum that will blow the lid off the secrecy that hangs over this reform package like a malevolent mist.
Any report issued by the Governor's Commission on Educational Reform must contain responses to the following questions:
Is MSPAP's elementary and middle school curriculum as content-poor as its critics charge, or are youngsters getting the skills and hard knowledge they're going to need to be successful in high school and beyond?
If kids are being provided with the skills necessary for academic success, why are so many of them requiring remediation when they get to college? Where are things going wrong?
Is the lack of student accountability in MSPAP testing a disastrous miscalculation, as critics charge, or do the youngsters in grades three, five, and eight take the tests seriously enough to give evaluators an accurate picture of how well children are being taught? And if students do take the tests seriously even though they can fail them with impunity, what explains the execrably low eighth-grade scores that flat-lined in the early 1990s?
Is there an inconsistency between MSPAP's criterion-referenced testing in grades three, five and eight and the knowledge-based High School Assessments scheduled to become mandatory for graduation in a few years? (In other words, if the MSPAP-driven elementary classroom forbids the teaching of such "archaic" skills as "carrying the one" and "borrowing from the tens place," how feasible is it to expect kids to pass a mandatory assessment in algebra in a few years?) High school teachers are almost apoplectic about this.
Just how are these tests scored, anyway? Graders must sign a secrecy oath. No one in authority will go on the record. Why the hush-hush? Does knowledge mastery count, or, as the Abell Foundation charges, are we rewarding those who can write to a formula that's been drummed into their heads? What is the margin of error built into the evaluation process. It is rumored to run as high as 30 percent. Could the standards be that fuzzy? Are we "reconstituting" some schools and passing out big reward money to others on the basis of an objective scale, or is the whole thing a wildly impressionistic crapshoot?
Do the methods employed in the MSPAP classroom serve to prepare kids for the hard academic realities to come, or might we be overselling group work and creative problem-solving?
Finally, what is the price tag and are we getting a decent return on our investment? In the recent funding flap between Grasmick and the governor's office, one of Glendening's spokesmen hinted that the cumulative price tag for educational reform in Maryland exceeds $3 billion. Whatever the correct figure, how much excellence has it bought us?
The Abell Foundation report raised substantive issues that our educational bureaucracy has shown itself unwilling to confront in an open and honest manner.
Name-calling and "non-denial denials" must not be allowed to substitute for enlightened policy-making. The public interest demands a thorough investigation of what our educational bureaucracy has been up to all these years, and the governor should initiate one.
Phil Greenfield has been a teacher at Annapolis High School since 1979. He also writes about the arts for The Sun in Anne Arundel and Howard.