What do MEAPs really measure? Which kids are rich, which are poor
       Sunday, February 23, 2003

       News Staff Reporter

       Increasingly, politicians are turning to standardized test scores
 to gauge how well a school or district performs or to award scholarship
 money. But not everyone is convinced these tests tell us what we want
 them to. Nelson Maylone has taught in West Bloomfield and served in
 administrative positions in the Brighton and Grosse Pointe school
 districts. Now, he's an Eastern Michigan University assistant professor
 of educational psychology who focuses on evaluation, assessment and
 research. His formula predicts the percentage of district high school
 students qualifying for the MEAP Merit Scholarship based on the
 socioeconomic makeup of the school district.

       Q: We understand you can predict MEAP scores. Could you explain

       A: What any test really is measuring is what it correlates with. By
 that I mean a test may look like a math test, but if you give a math test
 that's written in English to a group of American students and the same
 test written in English to a group of French students, the results really
 aren't telling you a lot about anybody's math ability. What the results,
 of course, will tell you is who speaks English.

       That's a bit of a facetious example. But anytime you give a test,
 especially a standardized test that's given to thousands of people ...
 you need to look at what it lines up with. ... Well, we've known for a
 long time ... that most standardized tests seem to line up ... with
 students' socioeconomic status, meaning kids in poverty tend to do poorly
 on standardized tests.

As it turns out, that what MEAP is really measuring ... is who the rich
kids are and who the poor kids are. ... For my dissertation, I took
 on the task of examining all 522 K-12 unified districts in the state,
 looking at their high school MEAP scores and comparing that to the
 district's socioeconomic status factors, such as mean annual income,
 average household income, percent of lone parent households - which you
 can probably guess are typically female - and so on. And then using some
 pretty powerful statistical programs.

       I claim that what you'll get, using only socioeconomic information,
 is a district's high school MEAP score ... in one sense that's kind of
 cool, and in another sense it's really disturbing.

       Q: Tell us about some of the districts who are beating the odds.

       A: Further study is needed in this area. ... But I do happen to
 know of a few who do outperform - Oak Park being one in particular that
 has beat the odds. And that's the result of intensive, hard, smart work
 and focus with lots of outside resources, by the way, for years and
 years. And they've pulled off a few minor miracles. ... We know a little
 bit already from other research from what's happening in those outliers:
 Strong administrative leadership, strong positive parental involvement,
 well-trained teachers, teaching in their specialty areas.

       Q: Can you speak as to why these factors of socioeconomic class
 factor into test scores so much?

       A: Although this particular study didn't look at that, the
 literature is pretty clear that when kids are disadvantaged, well,
 they're disadvantaged, which typically means less access to culture as
 kids, probably most significantly less reading in the home, less modeling
 of reading and learning from parents, frequently one-parent households
 and often that parent is working two jobs and so kids to some extent
fending for themselves. And they're just not as ready for school.

       Q: What do your findings mean for how much we should value MEAP

       A: MEAP is not a quality indicator of student achievement in the
 first place. You have the socioeconomic-MEAP score correlation issue,
 which in and of itself is pretty important, but then it segues into a
 discussion of whether we ought to be using MEAP anyway. And the answer is
 clearly no. It's a flawed test. The high stakes that are attached to it
 are incredibly inappropriate. There is plenty of room in education for
 traditional paper-and-pencil testing in the hands of educators and
 parents. But the politicians have just run amok with MEAP.

       Q: What can the state do?

       A: The entire MEAP program has been getting worse and worse for
 several years, but now with the No Child Left Behind federal legislation,
 the badness of the MEAP program has been locked in.

       And to a great extent, now it's out of local hands. MEAP is
 expanding shortly. The No Child Left Behind legislation mandates annual
 standardized testing for all American public school kids in reading and
 math in grades 3-8. In Michigan, what we're doing, since we already have
 the MEAP up and running, is simply expanding that program. ... I'm not
 advocating any civil disobedience, but I would like to see more brave
 superintendents and principals and parents stand up to MEAP and the
 federal legislation. It's bad stuff.

       Peri Stone-Palmquist can be reached at (734) 994-6835 or

       © 2003 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission
       Copyright 2003 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.


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