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Md. should skip the MSA

Why are state officials preparing to give students the Maryland School Assessment tests this year knowing that the exams can't and won't do what they're supposed to do, which is tell educators which schools are making progress and which are not? There's got to be a better use for the $9 million it costs Maryland to administer the exams each year, and the state shouldn't be wasting money on tests that don't tell us what we need to know.

Maryland has used the MSA for a decade to evaluate the performance of schools and teachers. But this year the state introduced a new curriculum based on different standards than those the MSA was designed to measure. Since the MSA doesn't take those changes into account, the scores students earn can't be used to judge how well they've mastered the material or to sort out the schools that are making progress toward boosting student achievement from those that are falling short. New exams for the new curriculum are coming, but they're only ready for pilot use in the 2013-2014 school year.

School officials say that leaves them with no choice but to administer the MSA, given that states are required to test elementary and middle school students every year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Failing to administer the tests — even if they are fatally compromised by more recent developments — could lead to a loss of federal funding under that law, they claim. So they plan to give the test anyway, even the though scores won't be used to judge schools' progress.

The root of the problem is that Congress has been unable to reauthorize the NCLB legislation, and so obvious flaws in the current law remain. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has granted states waivers from all sorts of provisions of the law — indeed, Maryland is seeking some now, for example to delay the requirement that teacher evaluations be based in part on growth in student test scores. But state officials believe the federal department will give no quarter on the rule that students must be given annual tests.

But we find it hard to believe that the Department of Education would severely punish Maryland for exercising some obvious common sense. California's legislature has already voted to delay testing for a year until the new exams are in place, and no doubt other states will follow its lead. Surely Mr. Duncan must realize that the cause of accountability in education would be hurt far more by wasting taxpayer dollars on tests that serve no real purpose than by allowing a one-year pause in the testing regimen. Despite its shortcomings, NCLB was a well-intentioned measure designed to spur precisely the kind of education reforms Maryland is attempting to carry out. It makes no sense for the government to use it now to threaten to sabotage that effort.

State officials suggest that even if the now-outmoded MSA exam can't be used for the purpose for which it was intended, there are still peripheral benefits to be derived from administering it, such as spotlighting potential problems in teaching certain groups of students, including minorities, low-income and special education students and students for whom English is a second language.

That may be, but the money spent on testing all the state's children would still be better spent if it were targeted specifically at those groups. Nine million dollars could buy a lot of after-school tutoring and mentoring for the kids who need it most, as well as other services that could help close the achievement gap. Would Mr. Duncan really pull the plug on Maryland for trying to fulfill one of the core missions he has identified for school reform efforts nationally?

We doubt it. This is a situation in which Maryland can make a strong case for why it should be exempt from the requirements of a law that clearly has been overtaken by events and that no longer serves the best interests of its schools, teachers and students. It should announce that it's canceling this year's MSAs and using the money saved for more productive projects that truly advance school education reform. And if federal officials don't like it, tough luck.

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