MSA will be given, won’t count for much

Thanks to Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun, we know today that the Maryland School Assessment, which the state uses for federal accountability purposes, in compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, will be given this spring to the state’s third- through eighth-graders even though the results on those tests won’t be used to measure school progress, which is their original purpose.

All but a few classrooms of students at every public elementary and middle school in the state will spend a few hours on a few days this spring taking the tests, but their results will not be used to determine how well the school is educating those students.

That’s largely because the MSA tests students on the state’s old curriculum, which was called the “Voluntary State Curriculum” until 2009, when the state board dropped the “voluntary” designation. Teachers in the state began instructing students in the Common Core last year, and by now, most math and language arts classrooms in the state have completely replaced the old state curriculum with the Common Core.

The change is especially apparent in mathematics, where some types of problems that are tested on the MSA aren’t explicitly part of the Common Core. One example I reported on before was the circle graph, required under the old state curriculum but not explicitly listed among the skills students are required to know under the Common Core. There’s nothing in the Common Core that prevents a teacher from introducing students to circle graphs, but it’s difficult to test students across the entire state on a problem type that’s not explicitly required.

If we were testing only a classroom of kids, that would be one thing. We would know what that teacher taught and be able to design tests that measure how well her students had mastered what we know she taught. Under the Common Core, we can’t be sure that teachers would teach kids about circle graphs, so questions about circle graphs, which are on the MSA, are unfair.

School system superintendents in Maryland have expressed concern. “This transition and lack of reliable testing data from the state has created great concerns for local superintendents who are trying to maintain and convey confidence in the quality of education that Maryland students are receiving,” the Sun quoted Michael J Martirano, superintendent of St Mary’s County Public Schools and president of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, as saying.

There’s also questioning from a national teachers’ union. “It doesn’t make sense to give a test that you know is not aligned to what you are teaching because that is just a waste of everyone’s time and, frankly, money,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, the National Education Association’s director for education practice and policy.

But officials at the Maryland State Department of Education and the US Department of Education say the tests still have value. Cameron French, deputy press secretary for the federal department, was quoted as saying, “Although it’s not ideal to use the old test when you are transitioning to new standards, we do believe the data provides some use to parents, policy makers, teachers and educators where there are access issues and chronic low performance.”

One of the strong points about the NCLB law was indeed that it provided information about groups of students who were largely swept under the rug before the law took effect. Schools wanted to look good to communities and so hid test results from certain students, but NCLB doesn’t allow that.

But besides those groups of students, in my opinion, this quote—and I know Ms Bowie’s reputation for quoting people accurately—is the best reason why we shouldn’t give the test.

First, standardized test data is of absolutely no use to teachers, as Mr French claims. They don’t get the “data” back until after the kids who are taking the test have left their classroom, and it makes no sense to study what went wrong with the old curriculum when we’re asking teachers to adapt to the Common Core curriculum. That’s much worse than being “not ideal,” I would say.

Some overlap exists between the old state curriculum and the Common Core—math is still math—but the grade level at which a majority of the content is introduced is different. The MSA has been grade-specific since its inception in 2003 and 2004.

Second, the data is of limited use to parents, because it’s not presented very clearly. In Maryland, parents simply get a scaled score. If it’s higher than about 400, in unknown units, the student is said to be “proficient.” Math and reading are huge subjects in elementary and middle school, and a single number doesn’t really tell parents much about where their children might be struggling within those huge subjects.

Here’s a sample report sent home to parents. “MSA scores are only one indication of your child’s mathematics performance. You should discuss your child’s performance on classwork, homework, projects and other tests and quizzes with your child’s teacher,” the report says. In other words, for parents, there are better ways to learn about how their children are doing in math than by reading the MSA score report.

And third, all the other people Mr French says have some use for the data don’t work or spend any part of their days in a classroom. It seems a waste to spend about $9 million, which is what this year’s MSA will cost the state, for these very limited gains in information. Notice he doesn’t even try to pretend the data have any use for students. It might be better for teachers, who know what they’re teaching, to find some way to fulfill federal requirements under the NCLB law with their own tests or other student work.

I am thrilled that some leading educators in the state are figuring this out, and I hope they find a creative way to move past this while maintaining compliance with federal law. This is perhaps a real opportunity to lead the way for a host of other states that are struggling with this very same issue as classrooms transition to the Common Core and Congress seems tied up with issues like Syria instead of the reauthorization of NCLB.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.

1 Comment on "MSA will be given, won’t count for much"

  1. Tiferet Ani, who identified herself as a Montgomery County teacher who opposed the state’s decision to give the MSAs, has started a petition that she intends to present to the state superintendent of schools and the governor after a few more people sign it, the Baltimore Sun reports.

    You can view the petition here, but it basically says the $6 million now estimated to be the cost of the MSAs in reading and math would be a waste of taxpayer money, and giving the tests would take up valuable instruction time for a test that won’t provide any useful data to anybody in Maryland.

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