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MSPAP must set standard for kids in Maryland


WITH MARYLAND'S emphasis on education accountability and President Bush's similar focus, it seems that the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program is in the forefront of everything that my child's teacher says and does.

Education Week, the K-12 community's newspaper of record, this year gave Maryland the nation's highest rating in terms of standards and accountability. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick was asked to testify before Congress.

But Maryland's success is threatened by a temptation to change and the real possibility of federal intrusion.

The first threat stems from confusion.

As parents, we get report cards, local test results, state test results and nationally standardized test results often with seemingly contradictory information.

For example, from 1993 to 1997, the number of students meeting Maryland's fifth-grade mathematics standards increased from 39.5 percent to 48.2 percent. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics test, only 22 percent of Maryland's fourth- grade students performed "proficiently" or better in 1996 -- an increase of only 4 percent from 1992.

What data do we look at? What is really important? A test is defined by its content, not its label. Every mathematics test my child takes has different content and therefore measures something different.

Mathematics in Maryland is not the same as mathematics in Kansas or on the NAEP. Maryland teaches different skills, in a different order and we expect different outcomes. MSPAP, which was administered Monday, is the right accountability tool for Maryland, not NAEP, which is not relevant for any state.

The second threat stems from federal plans for national testing.

Congress is considering expanding NAEP and other national tests as common accountability measures. These national tests do not measure what is important to Maryland; they were not developed to reflect the Maryland curriculum.

If NAEP or some other national test is held to be important, then teachers and schools would, and ostensibly should, drop the Maryland content standards and instead teach the skills covered by those tests.

We should fight any legislation that elevates someone else's standards above those of Maryland. Creating a national test means creating a national curriculum and abandoning all that Maryland has accomplished.

What about the relative achievement levels, 48.2 percent "proficient" on MSPAP vs. 22 percent "meeting standards" on NAEP?

The scores that define "proficient" and "satisfactory" are based on human judgment, not on an absolute standard. NAEP defines its standards one way; MSPAP another. Neither is inherently more right than the other. There is no natural state of affairs that indicates that someone has basic, proficient or advanced knowledge.

Marylanders should rely on the good judgment of their State Board of Education and reject anyone else's judgment, especially those of political appointees in Washington.

Lawrence M. Rudner is a professor in the Measurement, Statistics and Evaluation Department at the University of Maryland, College Park and the father of two children who attend Montgomery County public schools.

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