By RICK DOCKSAI, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Maryland students might be making major progress in math and reading—but then again, they might not.
Maryland students have registered enormous gains on the annual state assessment tests that they are required to take every year in accordance with the No Child Left Behind act.
At the same time, state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a similar test that the U.S. Department of Education administers in February of every other year, have made only minor increases.
"What is proficient in the state is not proficient on the NAEP," said Shanea Watkins, a policy analyst for the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.
"Parents should view their student's tests scores on the state tests skeptically," Watkins said.
But state officials said comparing the two tests is misleading. They note that while the state test is given annually to every student in third through eighth grades in Maryland, the national test is given to a representative sample of 2,500 students in fourth and eighth grades, who are tested on math and reading proficiency.
"Anyone who compares them right away is starting from a wrong vantage point," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
From 2005 to 2007, Maryland fourth graders' math scores on the state tests rose from 76.5 to 86, an increase of 12.4 percent. On the national test during those same two years, Maryland fourth-grade math scores rose less than 1 percent from 238 to 240.
Fourth-grade reading scores grew 6.2 percent on the state assessments but only 2.2 percent on the NAEP.
Eighth-grade math and reading on the state assessments increased 9.7 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, from 2005 to 2007 compared to increases of 2.9 percent and 1.5 percent on the NAEP during the same period.
Some teachers say the difference is easy to explain: The state tests are made to be easier because Maryland wants to ensure high scores, they charge.
"The state wants students to pass in order to pass the demands of NCLB (No Child Left Behind). So they are going to create tests that students can pass," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association.
"My understanding is that the NAEP is harder than the state test," she said.
But Reinhard said that standards for the two tests are different for another reason: The NAEP is a national test meant to compare states with each other while the assessments are state tests meant to measure student performance within a state.
"It (NAEP) is based on national standards not aligned with the Maryland curriculum," he said.
Reinhard said that each state teaches students differently and at different paces. "Different states teach different subjects at different times," he said.
Larry Fineberg, spokesman for the National Assessment Governing Board, agreed that the national test is "a survey. It's not for every child." The 26-member board was established by Congress to set policy for the NAEP.
The education department selects which schools in a state are going to be tested the spring of the year before. Fineberg said that if a state thinks an assessment is unfair, it can file a complaint with the Education Department before the test is taken.
"If they think there is something wrong with the sample—it's too urban or too rural, too black or too white—they have the chance to change it," Fineberg said.
But many experts consider the NAEP more reliable precisely because it adheres to a set standard, while state tests depend on whatever high or low standards the state sets.
"There is a huge range in what the standards are set to. It (NAEP) is the only consistent one, because state standards will change," said Jamie Fasteau, director of policy development for the education research and advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education.
Fasteau did not discount the possibility that Maryland is setting too low a bar for its schools.
"We're not experts on Maryland standards, but it's a possibility," she said.