Flummoxed Kids, Enraged Teachers: Déjà Vu All Over Again

In the early 1990s, Maryland put in place a complex, performance-based assessment to determine not only whether elementary school students could read, write and do math at a basic level but also whether they could demonstrate complex problem-solving and think critically across disciplines.

No dummy test, this was the real deal.

To give a sense of one of the test items: fifth-graders were given some equipment -- straws, salt, steel pellets, paper clips, beakers, pitchers of water and some things I have forgotten -- and were asked to work in a group to devise a test for salinity and then individually write up their results.

Speaking as a parent who had kids in elementary school then, when parents understood what was involved, we were pleased as punch that our kids would be expected to be as smart as we wanted them to be. Well, I was pleased, anyway.

But the first time kids took the test, known as MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program), the state was in an uproar. Never mind the kids, teachers were throwing up. They had never seen such a test and they hadn't paid much attention when the state department of education had told them it was coming. To be fair, it hadn't done so often or clearly enough.

One teacher in particular was furious -- Linda Eberhart, a teacher at Mount Royal Elementary in Baltimore City. "I was livid," she told me.

She demanded a meeting with then-state superintendent Nancy Grasmick and burst into the office wanting to know what Grasmick was thinking when she put into place such a ridiculously hard test that her students were completely unprepared for.

As I heard the story, Grasmick let Eberhart run herself out and then began a conversation -- were her students capable of passing a test like that?

Of course -- but they weren't prepared!

What would it have taken for her students to have been prepared?

Well, lots of things would've had to have changed -- kids would have had to read and write a lot more, they would have had to do more applied math, they would have had to confront problems to be solved. Classrooms would have to change a lot to prepare for those assessments.

Would those be good changes?

Well, yes.

And that was the whole point. Grasmick and the rest of the state education apparatus had made a bet that smarter assessments would drive smarter instruction.

Eberhart left that meeting with a new sense of how she could change what she was doing in her classroom. In subsequent years she became known as the best teacher in the state of Maryland.

Here's how people knew that she was a great teacher: Eberhart looped, meaning that one year she taught fourth grade and the next she followed the students to fifth and then subsequently dropped down again to fourth. If you looked at her school's scores, one year fourth-grade was near the top of the state and the fifth grade was not so great -- the next year fifth-grade was at the top of the state and fourth-grade had tanked. And it went on like that for years, each time the high proficiency rates reflecting the grade she had taught.

Back then I was writing a local school column, Homeroom, for the Washington Post and was intrigued by the data. Eberhart was gracious enough to allow me to visit her classroom; I had never before been in a classroom like hers. Kids were working in groups to design a mini-golf hole. In one corner of the room students were actually building one. This was math in action -- perimeters, areas, angles. The work was serious but, as a student in another school once told me, "It wasn't torture. It wasn't torture."

Students were reading. They were writing. They were doing math and solving problems. These weren't privileged kids. They were African-American kids from low-income families who rarely left their neighborhoods.

Teachers around Baltimore noticed Eberhart's results and began begging her to teach them in Saturday workshops. Later, the city hired her to help teachers in a more systematic way, and today in Baltimore many teachers brag that they have been trained by Eberhart -- who recently retired as the executive director of the city's Office of Teaching and Learning and was subsequently appointed to the state's Board of Education.

The reason I am rehashing this old story is because the whole country is about to experience what Maryland experienced lo these many years ago. Most states have signed on to implement, beginning this year, more sophisticated assessments -- PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Both are designed to see if kids can solve complex problems and think critically in line with the Common Core State Standards.

Kids are going to be flummoxed and teachers enraged, as is happening in New York state this year as it puts in place a tougher assessment. But if teachers believe their kids are capable of learning to high levels, and if they believe that they are capable of teaching them, they will find the ways to teach students to the high levels required by the assessments. Not that they should have to do that all by themselves. Teachers should get a lot more support than Maryland provided Linda Eberhart and her fellow teachers back then. Eberhart was an extraordinary enough teacher that even while many other teachers in the state floundered without the necessary support, she proved that all kids could meet higher standards if THEY were provided the right kind of support.

But if Linda Eberhart is the story of hope, Maryland as a whole is a cautionary tale.

It gave up those sophisticated MSPAP exams in favor of more easily and cheaply scored bubble-in tests that don't have nearly the rigor or fun of the old tests. It did so for a lot of reasons, but at least partly because the state and its school districts were never able to provide really coherent support of teachers to help students meet the standards of MSPAP.

All that being said, Maryland has had very impressive gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the past couple of decades, and I believe MSPAP helped kick start those gains. That is why I hope the nation's teachers will find ways to teach to the new, better assessments and not just throw up their hands in frustration.