The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Keeping MEAP Tests Improves State Curriculum" by The Detroit News, January 25, 2004.

Original Title:
Keep The MEAP!
by Barry McGhan

About ten years ago in these pages, I wrote, "If the ‘M' in MEAP stood for ‘misused' or ‘misunderstood,' the test would be more appropriately named."

Things are worse now.

Recent reports indicate that legislators and the Governor are considering replacing the MEAP with cheaper off-the-shelf commercial tests. Apparently, desperate budget times call for desperate measures. MEAP testing has been around more than 30 years, but it's a tossup as to whether politicians have ever understood it, or will ever provide the support necessary to get it right.

First, the test is not, – repeat, not – a test of individual student achievement. Nor is it a test of individual teacher competence (though it might eventually become both of these things).

It's primarily a test designed to reveal how well the state's curriculum is being implemented in schools. It's like radar. It tells whether the "ship" (school) is on course or not. It says little about how hard the "crew" (teachers) work, or whether the "passengers" (students) get proper care.

Further, it doesn't even determine the course very effectively, because it is only administered at widely separated grade levels – for example, 4th, 7th, and 11th grades for the math test. Teachers in those grade levels get info, but what about other grade teachers, whose work surely impacts those in the spotlight? This may soon change, since the federal No Child Left Behind law requires testing at each grade level from 3rd to 8th. The costs of this expansion of testing may be driving the proposals for major changes to the MEAP.

State politicians are responsible for the current expansion problem because they failed to fund a more comprehensive system when there was money for it. More importantly, they need to understand that changing the test now will be a great setback to worthwhile curriculum reforms that are already in progress.

Why is this important? Because the modern curricula Michigan educators have been trying to implement – when finally achieved – will provide more people with a better education than before. This is no time to toss the radar over the side because we can't afford to pay the electric bill.

What politicians seem unable to grasp is that the MEAP test is a sample of the state curriculum we are trying to implement. Substituting a commercial test for it is like bringing in a radar system without enough power to tell us where we're going.

Let me share a vignette that will clarify the importance of keeping the MEAP tests as they are. I teach a college mathematics course for prospective elementary school teachers, the kind required by virtually every teacher certification program. On the first night, my students take a short pre-test composed of problems from the first two chapters of a widely used fifth grade math book. Districts use this text because it implements the state curriculum tested by MEAP tests. Most of my students fail this 5th grade test, getting less than 60% of the questions right!

But these folks are not dumb or uneducated. The reason they have trouble with modern elementary math is that it is not the old-fashioned "drill and kill" stuff they were taught. In mathematics, we've only been testing the new curriculum for about 12 years, and we've actually taught the new curriculum for much less time than that, because it takes so long to re-train teachers – especially old-timers who remain unconvinced that change is needed.

Plus, we try to teach for understanding now. Its harder to do, and harder to learn, but more appropriate for modern life.

The only way my students (and current working teachers) are going to be convinced they need to change is if we stick to the new direction the MEAP takes. If we don't, we're going to slip back into an out-dated curriculum that doesn't fit the needs of modern society.

If savings in the MEAP testing program need to be found, the easiest one is to get rid of the $2500 MEAP scholarship boondoggle. That would save about $100 million yearly. The scholarships are not appropriate anyhow, since MEAP tests don't really measure individual student achievement.

Other savings might be achieved by sticking to MEAP basics. For many years only the subjects of reading and mathematics were assessed. Go back to that, but keep the newer writing assessment. Let districts use the science and social studies portions of the MEAP tests on a voluntary basis. Or, do the state testing in these areas on a sampling basis, rather than testing every student. Scientific sampling will provide reliable information, and testing fewer students should be cheaper.

Let's hope the politicians can get things right this time. If so, we can continue to move forward to a 21st Century curriculum.


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