TEN YEARS AGO, Nancy S. Grasmick pulled off what was thought to be an impossible task, installing a school testing and accountability program that gave the state unprecedented power over local districts.
Since then, the Maryland school superintendent has fought to hold together a testing program that's frequently been called a national model. She's fended off critics and forced doubters - whether they be superintendents, principals, teachers or parents - to treat the examinations seriously.
Last week, as test scores were found to have declined for the second time in three years and 20 of 24 school systems dropped, Grasmick unveiled the first overhaul of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program in its 10-year history.
Many of the changes are exactly what MSPAP critics have been demanding. Individual test scores for pupils. The possible inclusion of multiple-choice questions. The consideration of other national standardized test results - in addition to MSPAP - to judge school performance. And all schools will start getting targets for improvement, not just those at the bottom.
"I am thrilled that concepts that I've been advocating for more than seven years are finally being recognized as essential to any real education reform effort," says Del. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican and long-time MSPAP foe.
Yet when Grasmick announced the changes, she portrayed them not as a response to the critics, but as what's needed for Maryland to comply with the new federal education bill, including the requirement that all children be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8.
"These steps are not reacting, they are acting," Grasmick said. "We have been told that Maryland is in a better position than almost any state to meet the federal mandates, and this is what we need to do."
Coincidentally, the changes called for by the federal government also match the recommendations of a "visionary panel" Grasmick had put together more than a year ago to plot the future of education reform in Maryland.
"The timing of the visionary panel reports and the [federal law] is perfect," says James Watts, vice president for state services at the Southern Regional Education Board. "Politically, Dr. Grasmick is savvy enough to know these modifications are necessary. Now the state of Maryland can move forward and make a better and balanced approach to testing."
Grasmick has parlayed the MSPAP changes into a move for the state to gain more sway over local schools, asserting that the inconsistent instruction points to a need for a voluntary statewide curriculum.
Educators who a decade ago would have screamed about the loss of local control are applauding that idea - an indication of how much Grasmick has changed Maryland in her decade as state superintendent. The decade of education reform revolves around the MSPAP examinations given each May to all of the pupils in the third, fifth and eighth grades.
Unlike standardized, multiple-choice exams, MSPAP tests call on pupils to apply knowledge by working in groups and writing long essays. The tests are not designed to judge abilities of individual pupils but to grade effectiveness of schools' instruction in six subjects.
The debate over the MSPAP has simmered for years. In 2000, an Abell Foundation study found that the MSPAP program - and the style of teaching it encourages - interferes with learning such basic skills as multiplication tables and historical facts.
This school year, MSPAP faced new challenges. In November, state officials announced a delay in the release of the spring 2001 scores, saying they found large fluctuations that were difficult to explain.
After two months of review by researchers in and out of Maryland, they concluded that the scores were what they were - down, with many schools experiencing double-digit declines.
"These results are absolutely legitimate," Grasmick says. "That integrity exists and has been validated."
For the first time, however, a major school system has stepped out publicly and disagreed. Montgomery County school officials insist there's a deeper technical problem with the test.
The superintendent of Maryland's largest school system has told his principals that he doesn't plan to hold them accountable for the just-released results, and he and other Montgomery educators say they're at a loss to explain why scores dropped significantly at some of their most highly regarded schools. But Montgomery isn't finding much support among the state's other 23 school systems and superintendents. They have closed ranks to back Grasmick and the MSPAP program.
"I absolutely support what Nancy's doing," says Betty Morgan, superintendent of Washington County schools and former chief academic officer of the Baltimore schools, "and that's coming from a superintendent whose scores slipped slightly."
Similarly, Advocates for Children and Youth - a nonprofit group that hasn't been shy about criticizing state education officials - says Maryland's stagnant test scores accurately reflect what's happening.
"If it has flattened out, it means something," says Matthew Joseph, the group's public policy director. "The underfunding of our public schools has stalled progress in improving student achievement."
For years, the group has been saying Maryland's testing lets too many schools coast with mediocre scores, because the state only threatens to take over worst-performing schools and only rewards schools with largest gains.
Under the changes announced by Grasmick, all schools will start receiving one-year to three-year improvement targets, and those that fail to meet them will face some type of sanctions.
To be sure, there's one group of MSPAP critics that Grasmick's changes won't mollify - those who say the exams lack content.
"The problem isn't just the test, it's the standards behind the test," says John Hoven, a Montgomery County parent who believes Maryland's standards are too lax. "For everything that was announced, those standards haven't changed."
But the most significant change to the MSPAP tests will be enabling pupils to be given individual scores - which many parents have been seeking for years. That could require the inclusion of multiple choice questions.
"MSPAP is not a measure of what Johnny knows and can do as an individual, and that's something parents want," says R. Allan Gorsuch, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Education Consortium. "Now, they're going to see it, and I think they're going to see it because there are three issues coming together at once.
"You have a lack of gain in MSPAP scores, two years out of three," Gorsuch says. "The visionary panel appointed by Dr. Grasmick, they're speaking directly toward a different kind of MSPAP. And the third is the federal bill. Together, it means changing the course of MSPAP, which it's time to do."