March 13, 2002

March 13, 2002 | Testimony on Education

Federal Law Requires Changing Maryland's Academic Assessment Program

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the merits of Senate Bill 634 and why it is necessary to change the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) to comply with federal law. I must stress that the views I express are entirely my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

Senate Bill 634 requires the Maryland State Department of Education to adopt regulations to modify the MSPAP to conform to the testing requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Signed on January 8, 2002, the federal law requires students in 3rd through 8th grades to be tested annually in math and reading beginning in the 2005-2006 school year. It mandates the adoption of science assessments the follow year. Test results must be desegregated by subgroup and provided to the public. Schools whose students fail to make progress will receive assistance but also will face corrective action for continued failure. Such schools are required to offer students public school choice and the option for poor students to purchase supplemental services.

In addition to fueling the accountability system, these tests will produce a wealth of student achievement data for parents and teachers. States and school districts will be required to report to the public the test results. School report cards will provide parents with the information they need to assess how well their children are doing in school, as well as the quality of their schools.

Because the state assessments are central to the accountability system and key to helping parents and teachers evaluate students' needs, the law requires the test to meet certain guidelines. State assessments must be aligned with state academic content and achievement standards, provide individual test scores, be based on measurable, verifiable and widely accepted professional assessment standards, and not evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs and attitudes. Data must be available as soon as is practicably possible after the assessment is given.

In order to meet these requirements, Maryland will have to make changes to its accountability system. Currently, Maryland's accountability system consists of the MSPAP, the Maryland Functional Tests, and student attendance and dropout rates. Students take the MSPAP in 3rd, 5th, and 8th. They take the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills in 2nd, 4th, and 6th.

The Maryland system does not meet the requirements of the federal law. Specifically, the MSPAP does not yield individual test scores. It was designed to yield data on schools, not on their students. Additionally, the test, particularly its science and math components, is insufficiently linked to the Maryland state standards. It focuses on process, not content. Because of its structure and the way it is graded, MSPAP results are not sufficiently accurate or available in a timely fashion.

To correct these problems, Senate Bill 634 requires the Maryland State Department of Education to adopt regulations to modify the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program to conform to the testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The bill does not direct the MSDE to act in any specific manner. The Department has an opportunity to design a new test, or to radically alter the MSPAP not only to meet the federal requirements but also to improve the testing system statewide.

The following principles would ensure Maryland's new test meets the federal requirements and provides quality information about student achievement.

1. The test must be aligned with state academic content and achievement standards Testing student mastery of state academic content is not only required by the federal law, as mentioned above, it yields information that parents and teachers need to know. The MSPAP, which focuses on process rather than academic content, is not sufficiently aligned with state standards or the content-based high school assessments that are being developed.

2. The test must yield individual test scores. Providing individual test scores enables teachers and parents to make important decisions about each individual student's learning. The adoption of individual student test scoring will necessitate serious changes to the MSPAP. According to the Psychometric Review of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), an Abell Foundation study in 2000 led by testing expert Dr. Ronald Hambleton, "the incorporation of more structured questions and answer response formats should be considered. These could include multiple choice questions, but in addition could include table completion, restricted option choices, and more directed answer frameworks." The report adds that such questions can be designed to assess higher-order thinking skills in addition to content knowledge. Additionally, pre-assessment group activities and manipulatives would have to be discontinued. These changes would enable the MSPAP to accurately gauge individual academic achievement.

3. The test must graded quickly and yield accurate results. Federal requirements demand timely and accurate reporting of data. Because of MSPAP's dependence on lengthy constructed responses, the rendering of scores takes several months. Short cuts are taken. A Washington Post article in February 2002 noted that some test scorers were not reading the essays but were looking for "key words." If the key words were used, the student got credit even if the answer made no sense. Answers that were correct but lacked the key words would not get credit. Scorers were only required to be accurate 70 percent of the time.

In conclusion, the Maryland State Department of Education must change the MSPAP in order to conform to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The federal law sets up an accountability system that is based on the use of accurate, timely student academic achievement data. To meet the new federal requirements, MSDE will have to alter the MSPAP or develop a new test that is aligned to state content standards, and provides individual student test scores in an accurate, timely fashion. SB 634 acknowledges that changes are necessary. Its adoption will ensure that the Department engages in the process of making the changes. Non-compliance could result in the loss of millions of dollars in federal funds for Maryland schools. The process of complying, however, could result in a more useful, accurate tool for gauging and improving learning in Maryland's schools.

Thank you.

Krista Kafer is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education