MSA scores are no cause for alarm

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It's not time to panic quite yet over Maryland's plummeting elementary and middle school assessment scores. To be sure, they're not good, showing widespread declines in performance for the first time in years. But the declines are so systemic and sudden as to suggest a single culprit could be responsible for most of the change, and this year, there's an obvious answer. Maryland's test scores went up year after year as its districts aligned their curricula and teachers their lessons with the Maryland School Assessments. Now, though, as part of a national effort to improve academic standards, the state is in the process of adopting a new curriculum, but it is stuck for the moment with the old assessments. Ironically enough, it's possible that test scores went down this year in large part because students are being taught at a higher level.

Maryland, along with nearly every other state, has signed on to the Common Core State Standards curriculum. Full statewide implementation begins this fall, but districts have already begun transitioning to it. In general, the Common Core is designed to raise academic standards in the United States to international levels in reading and math, but that doesn't mean that students would necessarily have acquired the same skills in the same sequence that they would have before. As Howard County schools Superintendent Renee A. Foose put it in a recent Sun op-ed, "In essence, we are teaching to the future and testing to the past."


Statewide average scores went down in every grade and on every test in elementary school. In the middle school grades, average scores were also down across the board except for seventh- and eighth-grade reading. Overall pass rates were down in every district in the elementary grades and in all but a handful in middle school. Declines were particularly acute in mathematics, the subject in which the disconnect between the new curriculum and old tests is most obvious.

In announcing the results, the state placed the blame for the "slight" declines on the transition to the new curriculum and to the end of the use of a modified exam for special education students, which affected about 2 percent of test takers. State schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery warned that things will look ugly next year, too, as the state makes the full transition to the Common Core but only partially switches to the new tests that have been developed to go along with it, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments. Students in some grades will still take the MSA next year, and others will pilot use of the computer-based PARCC tests.


Even those who benefit next year from the alignment of the new assessments and curriculum probably won't do well on the exams because it takes time for teachers and administrators to become familiar with the new material and to learn how best to help their students succeed. That's what happened when the state switched to the MSA a decade ago, and it's a well-known phenomenon in education generally. Teachers learn how to teach to the test, and if the test is reflective of a well-designed, rigorous curriculum, that's not a bad thing.

Expected though it may be, the havoc created by this transition has a real impact. For one thing, it is impossible to develop any real sense of which districts and schools are doing well and which aren't, and that may remain the case for several years. As Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance astutely pointed out, schools that scored well on this year's tests may actually be worse off in the long run if their strong performance means they have yet to meaningfully switch to the new curriculum.

Moreover, the transition comes at the same time that the state is implementing new teacher and principal evaluations that are based, in part, on growth in student achievement. Such evaluations are part of the state's Race to the Top reforms, and they represent a crucial shift toward measuring all of the adults in our school system based on the only thing that really counts: whether students are learning. The evaluations are already unpopular among teacher and principal unions, who worry that they will be unfair. Moving toward them now without making any accommodation for the curriculum/assessment mismatch the state now faces would prove their point.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced last month that state superintendents could apply for waivers that would allow them to delay the impact of the new assessments for a year. The evaluations would still be given, but they would not be used for personnel decisions. That's a reasonable accommodation, and it could help with low teacher morale, which local and state officials said may have been a factor in this year's test scores. Seeking such a limited waiver would serve the purpose of making clear that the state is committed to simultaneously improving its curriculum, assessments and teacher evaluations but would reinforce its commitment to do so in a fair way.