Skepticism Greets Big Gains; Critics Cite Changes; Officials Deny Exams Were Easier
By Maria Glod
State reading and math tests taken by Maryland students were shortened and tweaked this year, leading some critics to question whether the shifts contributed to surprisingly strong gains in achievement.
State officials said the changes to the Maryland School Assessments, used to measure academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, had no significant impact on performance. They said an outside panel of education experts determined that the tests were as difficult as last year's exams or those administered in previous years.
Scores released Tuesday attracted attention because of dramatic gains -- some of the largest since the federal law was enacted in 2002. Statewide, the share of students who received scores of proficient or better jumped six percentage points in reading to 82 percent, and four percentage points in math to 76 percent.
Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy superintendent of Maryland schools, said students might have benefited from shorter exams, but he said the gains reflected good teaching and learning. Each test, given over two days, previously had taken about three hours and 45 minutes. This year's exams were about a half-hour shorter.
Students "may have had less fatigue," Peiffer said, but he stressed that the tests were no easier than in other years.
Peiffer said schools are focusing on students with disabilities, those learning English and minorities. "Schools are attending to students in ways they weren't before No Child Left Behind," he said. "All that is part of it. I think to think anything else is disrespectful of the work of our teachers."
But some critics of the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in schools nationwide say even subtle differences, either intentional or inadvertent, can have a significant impact on test scores. They argue that states do not release enough information about test questions, calculations about the level of difficulty and the scoring process.
"There is no way to know whether those numbers accurately reflect the quality of learning," said Robert Schaeffer, an official of the Cambridge, Mass.-based FairTest, which is critical of standardized testing.
"Deciding what items are on a test, deciding what subject area is covered, deciding whether this year's questions are the equivalent of last year's" is "subject to human judgment," Schaeffer said.
Under federal law, schools are supposed to have 100 percent of students pass reading and math exams by 2014.
In previous years, Maryland students had answered a battery of local educator-crafted reading and math questions that stemmed from classroom lessons. In addition, students tackled questions from standardized tests used nationwide. Only a portion of the questions from the nationwide exam -- those that corresponded closely with the state curriculum -- were counted as part of a student's MSA score.
This year, the state dropped questions from the national exam. Instead, students answered similar questions that were written by state educators. The testing changes were reported yesterday in the Baltimore Sun.
Mark Moody, a retired Maryland state director of assessment, said students might have been more comfortable because all questions covered material taught in class.
"One might hypothesize, although we have no way to know, that having some items that you're not familiar with might shake your confidence," Moody said.
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