State readies harder test for students in spring

December 11, 1990|By Kathy Lally

State education officials are writing a set of tough new tests that are likely to create high anxiety and low scores when the first of them are given this spring to schoolchildren across Maryland, Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent, said yesterday.

The tests, part of the school reform package that Dr. Shilling introduced in May, will replace the multiple-choice California Achievement Test that has given Marylanders an inflated picture of school performance for the last several years.

The old tests examined knowledge of distinct skills that are relatively easy to memorize -- such as adding fractions on the test for eighth-graders. The new tests force youngsters to use those skills to solve a problem, developing their own answers instead of choosing one from a list.

"We're going to have a lot of pain when that hits," Dr. Shilling said yesterday. "They're going to be very tough. We're going to have a lot of discombobulation when that hits."

Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education, a national group seeking higher educational standards, reviewed the new testing process for the state and called it "powerful in its potential to ensure a high level of curriculum and instruction for all students."

She praised the content being examined in the new tests. One reading section, she said, consists of a story by Jack London coupled with a short extract from a book on hypothermia; the student must discuss each in relation to the other.

"It is exemplary," Dr. Mitchell said. "If this assessment provokes TC this kind of teaching instead ofreading packaged material and answering the questions at the end,it will change curriculum and instruction for the better across the state."

Critics of the old tests said they encouraged teachers to teach very narrow skills that allowed children to perform well on the test but didn't show whether they could use the skills in real life.

The CAT also had been given so often that teachers could easilyremember the kinds of questionson the test and teach to those questions.

For example, the eighth-grade CAT now in use asks a series of questions that measure discrete skills:

Multiply 4/7 by 4/7

Divide 97 by 82

There are 20 rows in a parking lot. Each row has 15 spaces. How can you find the number of spaces in the parking lot?

Each is followed by a list from which to select the answer. For the last question, the list says:

a. add 20 and 15

b. divide 15 by 20

c. divide 20 by 15

d. multiply 20 by 15

e. none of the above

The new test is significantly harder.

As an example, a student is asked to figure out how to plan a new restaurant. Three different lot sizes are given -- one in an irregular shape -- and the student must figure out the square footage and cost for each lot. Then a table must be developed to help make a decision about what lot should be bought. The student would have to write a few sentences justifying the decision.

There's no room for guessing.

The new tests are being written by 200 teachers and supervisors from across the state. They will be graded by Maryland teachers working over the summer.

The tests were recommended to Dr. Shilling by the Sondheim Commission on School Performance as a way to push for higher levels of teaching and learning in Maryland schools.

The tests are described as criterion-referenced; that is, they ask questions about specific material that students in Maryland are supposed to be learning, and students would get a score showing how many they answered right and wrong. The CAT is norm-referenced; scores are reported in relation to the performance of a group of California students who took the test when it was developed.

Tests scores have become inflated since the CAT was first given in Maryland in 1980 because the "norms" -- the performance of the original test group -- are old and because they have been given so often that teachers in many grades know exactly what is on them and can prepare students very specifically for them.

"We've been getting them ready for the CAT by teaching them to recognize the right answers," Dr. Shilling said. "Now we'll be teaching them to develop their own answers. It's going to be tough the first time around."

The new tests, in mathematics, writing and reading, will be given to all third- , fifth- and eighth-graders in the state in May, and in social studies and science the following May; 11th-graders will be tested in all five areas beginning in May 1992.

Dr. Shilling discussed the new tests during a press conference in which he praised the recommendations of the Linowes Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure.

Though the state can carry off some parts of his reform plans, such as changing testing, Dr. Shilling said, it can't proceed on others unless new sources of money are found. The Linowes commission recommended shifting revenue sources from reliance on property taxes to an array of more progressive taxes.

Dr. Shilling has had to drop, for now, plans to lengthen the school year. But he hopes to pursue a program of Challenge Grants in the legislature in January. The grants, averaging about $300,000 for a typical elementary school, would provide funds for schools to carry out improvement plans that they develop themselves.

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