Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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Bills introduced in Md. to cancel the MSA


Shortly after the legislative session began on Jan 8, the Maryland General Assembly introduced two pieces of emergency legislation aimed at canceling the administration this school year of the Maryland School Assessment in math and reading for students in third through eighth grades, reports.

The Maryland State Department of Education noted last spring, after scores dropped on the MSA math tests, that what was being taught in Maryland classrooms—learning standards found in the new Common Core State Standards—didn’t match what was on the test. As we observed, here, the disconnect between the Common Core standards and Maryland’s old learning standards is especially troubling in math, though not so much in reading.

We also pointed out in the above article that there’s a little overlap, since math is still math. However, the grade level at which many types of math problems are introduced is different. Asking students, on a high-pressure test, to find a solution to a type of problem their teachers aren’t required to teach is unfair.

Now the MSDE has wavered a little. “While there is some misalignment [between Common Core and MSA,] there is not misalignment between the English language and math parts” for the elementary grades, Glynis Kazanjian of quoted Jack Smith, MSDE’s chief academic officer, as saying.

Take seventh-grade mathematics

In addition to the misalignment shown in the link above, there’s also considerable misalignment in geometry. The MSA for seventh-grade math could very well require a student to “construct” a perpendicular bisector of a line segment (see standard 2.C.1.c about a third of the way down the page, here). Under the Common Core, this skill is not required until high school (see CCSSM.HSG.CO.D.12).

There’s nothing in the Common Core, of course, that would stop teachers from teaching seventh graders how to construct a perpendicular bisector. But teachers have enough to keep themselves busy just covering the standards in the Common Core without backtracking to the old standards just for the sake of one test, which everybody knows is misaligned.

I could go through and find several examples of misalignment, but that really misses the point, since I don’t care how bad the misalignment is between the two sets of learning standards; what matters is how poorly the MSA is aligned to the Common Core. Tests are only as good as the sum total of the questions that make them up, and if there are too many questions that are misaligned like this, the test is invalid.

Then, if the test is invalid, even the small amount of information that could be gleaned from the results for a subset of teachers in the state would also be invalid and would present a significant challenge to the soundness of any conclusions that might be drawn about intervention on a classroom basis or policy on a statewide basis.

How much money will we save?

One of the bills being advanced asks for a report about how much the state would save by stopping the test production process right where it is now and paying whatever penalty would be assessed by the federal government for not administering the test, which is required under the No Child Left Behind law.

It takes three years to develop tests like this, and we are currently in the final two months of that process for the current instance of the MSA. It’s extremely likely that test booklets have already been printed, though they might not have been shipped to the schools yet. Some savings could come from just not shipping the books to the schools.

The state will also get some savings if the tests aren’t scored. That’s a labor-intensive operation, where Pearson hires hundreds of scorers to read and evaluate the written responses (those that aren’t multiple-choice).

What this likely means is that much of the money may have already been spent developing the test, including writing and reviewing the items, field testing each and every item, and putting the items together in a coherent test that has multiple versions. (Not every kid in third grade, for example, gets the exact same questions, so each “form” of the test has to be built separately, which eats up considerable money.) Plus, if printing has already occurred, that money wouldn’t be recovered, either.

Let me summarize: I have never known it to be so difficult to do something, like canceling a misaligned test, that was so clearly the right thing to do. The legislation has bipartisan support, but can the legislature stop this train? The locomotive isn’t exactly known for its efficiency.

A few more things to point out

(1) Gov Jerry Brown tried canceling California’s tests used for accountability, but the US Department of Education threatened to withhold funding for the schools that was badly needed. The feds have since pulled back, but the saga continues, because state laws in California put much more power in individual school districts than Maryland’s laws.

(2) Some teachers can get a small amount of useful information from the test by comparing schools. For example, English language learners and students with special needs have to take the MSA just like everybody else. “If all the English language learners in School A do well in the English language portion of the test, but in School B they do not, why is that? This is information that teachers can use,” quoted Bill Reinhard, MSDE spokesman, as saying.

I would raise the counterpoint here that the MSAs weren’t designed for school improvement; they were designed for accountability purposes under federal law: Are teachers imparting the knowledge and skills found in the state’s learning standards or not? The MSAs replaced the MSPAP tests, which would have provided teachers of English language learners information with a much finer grain than the MSA ever did. The MSA score report is a blunt-force instrument, one that delivers sort of a “big picture” about school performance, not really the level of detail teachers in School B would need to make any changes to their methods based on the better performance of School A.

(3) Aside from those important populations, students and parents have nothing to gain from taking the MSA except for spending slightly fewer hours in class during the testing window in March. Teachers are, one would hope, using a variety of methods to assess their students’ understanding of the curriculum during the normal course of instruction. As long as those methods are valid, they provide a much better picture of how students are performing in class this year than the old MSAs will.

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

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