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Schools Around Maryland Had Testing Problems

Ohanian Comment: If the test didn't travel with such high stakes attached, one could say, "So there were a few glitches. So what?" But with the high stakes, every uncrossed t spells potential disaster for schools.

Now that students have put down their pencils and the smoke has cleared, school officials in the county and state will begin looking at how the Maryland State Assessments fared, including a few last minute, unforeseen problems.

Despite some problems with test booklets and last minute changes to instructions, all tests were completed during the allotted time from March 3 to March 14 and sent to be graded for an expected nine-week turnaround, Supervisor of System Performance for Calvert County Public Schools Karen Hunter said.

The Maryland State Assessments, now in the third year, were given to all Maryland students in grades three through eight and grade ten. The Maryland State Department of Education issued three corrections for the standardized eighth grade reading test at the last minute.

The confusing, last minute errata caused frustration among teachers and left administrators concerned about the possible effect on students’ test results.

“We’re hoping it didn’t have an impact on the tests,” Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Carol Reid said the week of the tests. “Teachers are required to read [directions] exactly as printed.”

Reid was unsure why the revised directions for teachers came so late, just one day before the test was given in Calvert County. She said some school systems might have already given the tests before the directions were corrected.

Students in different corners of the state opened their Maryland State Assessment test books to find pages out of order, duplicated or even missing.

A printing error created an unnerving problem for students and teachers involved in the high-stakes tests that the state uses to measure academic progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“That was kind of a crazy day or two, but after that, everything went pretty smooth,” Hunter said.

At Plum Point Middle School about 30 test booklets for the eighth grade reading assessment were printed in error. Some pages were missing while others were duplicated. Another middle school in Calvert County also had a few problem booklets, she said.

“I would be very surprised if it had adversely affected the students’ scores,” Hunter said. She said thanks to the quick work of the Plum Point Middle School’s administration, particularly Vice Principal Ellen Duehrssen, a potential disaster was averted and new test booklets were given to the students.

In a situation like this, “You’re alerted to problems you didn’t think could exist,” Hunter said, adding that hopefully these kind of problems will not happen again.

The testing coordinator for each school systems in the state will meet with the Maryland State Department of Education in April to discuss how the MSA testing went, Hunter said. Also, she will meet with each school’s testing coordinator in the county next week to go over any problems encountered and discuss how the testing session went overall.

The problems were not confined to Calvert County.

"It was a little messy this year," said Theresa Alban, director of Shared Accountability for Montgomery County Public Schools.

In the days leading up to the tests, test publisher Harcourt Assessment delivered some testing materials to wrong schools.

"Some materials went to schools in Prince George's County," Alban said.

Gary Heath, the state's assistant superintendent for accountability and assessment, said the state Department of Education is still trying to determine how many school systems were affected, but he said the problem was "not statewide."

Problems were found with "some books in a few schools in a few [systems]," Heath said.

Of the 450,000 students taking the test statewide "a very small percentage, we still don't know have the exact number, were missing a few pages," he said.

Heath said state education officials have scheduled a meeting with Harcourt this month.

"We require our vendors to not have those kinds of mistakes," he said. "... If there's one book that's wrong, well that's too many."

Harcourt and CTB McGraw-Hill share a $13.5 million annual contract to publish the tests for the state.

There are four forms of the reading test, so students in the same classroom may not be taking the same form of the test.

In one form of the reading test pages of the answer booklet were out of order, missing or duplicated, a problem testing coordinators at some schools did not discover until students had the tests in their hands.

Another problem arose when school administrators discovered there were fewer extra test booklets this year, Alban said.

At Westland Middle School in Bethesda and Redland Middle School in Rockville, test coordinators had to scramble when they realized only after students had begun their testing time that they did not have enough booklets with the correct pages.

The two schools rushed staffers to the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville to pick up 60 answer booklets.

Students were not the only ones confused. Test proctors must read precise test directions to students. The state corrects any errors discovered after the test materials are published by e-mailing errata sheets to testing coordinators.

"We had one day when I think there were three versions of the errata before they got it right," Alban said.

Asked how confident administrators could be that proctors understood the thrice-corrected directions, Alban said, "As confident as you can be with 192 schools trying to administer this test."

The printing errors may raise questions about the integrity of the test.

"These are secure materials," Alban said. "There's special handling processes that have to be observed."

The chaos could compromise the test results for individual students, she said.

"Anything that disrupts a child, some kids may handle it with no problem, other kids might be rattled by it and lose their focus," Alban said. "As one principal said to us, 'This is our Super Bowl.' So anything that sets things a little off makes us worry."

But Heath said he expected little, if any effect, on individual test scores.

"There's a lot of ways to control for any student effects," he said. For example, comparing completion rates between this year's and last year's test.

"I would be absolutely amazed, based on my 15 years conducting testing in Maryland, that we would see any differences," he said.

Still, the publishing errors will be another issue to consider when school systems analyze their results. This year's results, which are due at the end of June, are eagerly awaited as the state's targets for proficiency will take a big jump.

Failure to meet proficiency levels has consequences: Low-performing schools may be required to provide students with the option of transferring to other schools, of tutoring or, in the case of schools that fail to show sustained improvement, being taken over by the state.

"This is a high-stakes accountability test for schools and this is a vendor that had serious flaws and mistakes," Alban said. "And the state says they will be looking at this, and I hope there's some accountability for the vendor as well."

— Jesse Yeatman and Sean R. Sedam
The Calvert Recorder
2005-04-06


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