Assessing MSPAP: Who Gets Scores for What?

by Aparna Balakrishnan
       THE MARYLAND SCHOOL Performance Assessment Program, better known as MSPAP, is a rather controversial testing tool used to evaluate Maryland public schools.

       MSPAP tests students to determine how well they can solve problems individually and in groups, to see if they can apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world problems, and to assess how well they can relate and use knowledge from various subject areas. Yet, though teachers strive all year to prepare their students for the test, neither they nor their students receive feedback about how well they did as individuals. Only the school is scored.

       The MSPAP, introduced by the Sondheim Commission in 1989, was approved by the State Board of Education in 1990. This evaluation goes hand-in-hand with the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, or CTBS, administered to grades 2, 4, and 6. The CTBS tests about 70% of what is being taught in classrooms, while the MSPAP has been designed to test all 100%, assessing student progress in reading, writing, language usage, mathematics, science, and social studies. “It was necessary to pick a test that would correspond to teaching, and that would help give information on what is taught in the classrooms,” says Assistant Superintendent Ron Peiffer.

       Annually administered in May to grades 3, 5, and 8, the MSPAP takes about eight hours to administer over a five-day period. In the following months, the tests are scored by about 650 specially trained teachers from four different regions in the state.

       Ostensibly to save time and make the final pooling of results easier, the MSPAP is broken up into three “forms,” or ways to measure achievement in all of the subjects. Students are assigned randomly to one of these forms.

       Test questions are not limited to “right” or “wrong” answers, but can involve “open response” or open-ended answers.

       Individual student test results are not readily available, but it is possible for students, parents, and teachers to request to see individual scores. State school officials assert that individual scores don’t mean much because each form of the test represents only a third of the data used in the overall evaluation.

       There is a “state satisfactory standard” for schools of 70%, representing the percentage of students at a given school who achieve a “satisfactory” score.

       MSPAP is evaluated annually for its efficacy through a three-step process. Before its release, the content of the test is reviewed by third, fifth, and eighth grade teachers. The second step involves evaluating the technical aspects of the program; this is done by a group of nationally recognized experts in consultation with the companies that prepare the tests. These companies are required to produce a new technical manual every year.

       Lastly, Mr. Peiffer says, “There is a sort of ‘open door’ for research and university studies.” These studies examine whether the test is doing what it is supposed to. Almost 200 such studies have been produced in the last ten years, and are available on the Department of Education’s website.

       Since the MSPAP’s inception, there has been disagreement concerning the usefulness and fairness of the test and the way results are handled. Some feel that the MSPAP is an accurate and useful assessment of school performance, while others feel it is unfair to make students test for so long without any personal feedback.

       Concern has been expressed that some students feel stress and even desperation when confronted with the test, and their parents worry. Teachers are concerned that the MSPAP assessment may reflect poorly on their classes because of poor performance by a few students.

       Critics of the MSPAP, which costs $30 per student to administer, question if the test is necessary, since students are already being evaluated by other tests that provide individual scores.

       Proponents of MSPAP acknowledge these concerns, but say it is the best way the state has yet developed to ascertain how well a given school is educating students to reason well and apply knowledge to real-world situations.

       For more information about the MSPAP and other programs, go the the Maryland State Department of Education Website, at www.msde.

       Aparna Balakrishnan is a senior at Roland Park Country School.


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This story was published on August 1, 2001.