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State unveils testing reforms


State education officials detailed yesterday the next generation of standardized tests to be offered come spring - a mix of multiple-choice questions and longer essays that will replace the increasingly criticized, decade-old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

The Maryland School Assessment, as it is called, will allow parents to see just how their children are performing, instead of having to rely only on the scores of their child's school. The test is shorter, more streamlined and allows for comparison to students nationwide, something the MSPAP was never designed to do.

Tests in science, social studies and writing are gone; the focus will instead be on reading and math, mirroring new federal legislation.

"MSPAP served us very well," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told reporters. "I feel very strongly that Maryland was in the forefront of building an accountability and assessment program. But we realized after a decade it's time to look at lessons learned ... time to make some changes."

The new MSA is the centerpiece of a plan for the next decade of public school reform in Maryland. Grasmick began her day in Annapolis yesterday before the state's Board of Public Works, where she got unanimous and enthusiastic approval to pay two companies $53 million over the next four years to put together and produce the tests. One of the companies, CTB/McGraw-Hill of Monterey, Calif., helped develop the MSPAP. The other is Harcourt Educational Measurement of San Antonio.

"You are so good," Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sits on the three-member panel, told Grasmick during her presentation. "I don't know what you were talking about, but I'm for it."

A new evaluation has been discussed in recent years as scores on the MSPAP started flattening out after years of progress. Parents and teachers have complained more and more about the test, saying too much classroom time was spent teaching to the test. A blue-ribbon visionary panel, commissioned by Grasmick, delivered a report in January saying it was time to find a test that offered individual student - and not just school - scores.

The same month, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which required testing in grades three through eight and again in 10th grade in reading and math. Starting in the 2003-2004 school year, Maryland will do just that. The MSPAP, without individual scores and given in too few grades, did not meet the new federal guidelines.

Eventually, the state's new test will also evaluate in science.

And pupils will be tested earlier than ever before. Beginning in 2003-2004, first- and second-graders, too, will take reading tests; $3.7 million of the state money approved yesterday will develop that exam in the same vein as the one for higher grades.

The standardized test now given in second-, fourth- and sixth-grade - the Terra Nova, previously known as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills - will no longer be given after this school year. With the new MSA that test will no longer be needed, officials said.

Grasmick was at first reluctant to endorse a multiple-choice test, one completed as children fill in bubbles with No. 2 pencils. They, however, are simpler and cheaper to grade - and will help the state have test results available by the end of the school year in which they are given, starting in 2004. About 25 percent to 30 percent of the test will be essay questions; most of the rest will be multiple-choice.

"It's a myth that you can't test higher-order thinking with the multiple-choice questions," said Mark Moody, the assistant state superintendent who oversees testing. "[The questions are] just more difficult to write."

Mark Beytin, president of the Baltimore County teachers' union, said in his school district, at least, the MSPAP took on "a much greater meaning than it was supposed to." There was a great deal of "teaching for the test," something he hopes can be avoided this time around. He likes what he hears about the MSA.

"It's a common-sense implementation," he said. "It depends how it comes out."

The new test will be phased in starting next spring, with only pupils in grades three, five and eight taking it. The following spring, pupils in grades three through eight and 10th-grade students will be tested over four days in March.

Instead of nine hours of testing over five days, they will have six hours over four days - just 90 minutes a day. Students will no longer work in groups, as they did in doing science experiments for the MSPAP; all of the work will be done individually.

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