This Monday, thousands of Maryland public school students will begin a battery of new, state-mandated tests intended to see if they can use what they supposedly learned in the classroom.
In preparation for almost a year at a cost of more than $1 million, the tests are a key part of the Maryland School Performance Program, the state's drive to make schools account for the job they are doing.
An estimated 162,000 students -- virtually all of the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders -- are expected to take tests this year covering mathematics, reading, writing and language usage.
Next year, the program will be expanded to include 11th-graders, and tests covering social studies and science.
And starting in 1992, the results will become part of the state's annual "report card" on school performance, giving parents and local officials data on every school in Maryland.
The new tests, proposed by a gubernatorial commission in 1989, are intended to provide a yardstick for judging the performance of schools and how much they improve each year.
Schools will still give the traditional standardized tests that compare Maryland students with those around the country.
But the home-grown tests will use a far different format to measure how well students use what they learn, not just how many facts they have learned.
In nine hours of testing over eight days, students may be asked to read published literary works, write short and long essays, draw actual graphs and charts, and work through elaborate word problems.
The tests are supposed to mirror real-life situations, state officials say -- and real life rarely offers clear-cut, multiple-choice answers.
"We are attempting to assure that students can solve problems and can think critically," said Joseph L. Shilling, state school superintendent.
Because the state will measure students' performance against tough, objective standards, "the results will not be as good the first time around as you would like them to be."
But teacher groups and some education experts, while praising the concept, warn that the new tests may be too much, too soon.
Without time to become familiar with the new format, students are virtually guaranteed to do poorly -- and teachers and schools will be blamed.
"Our teachers have a sense of dread and doom coming down, because they know they have not been adequately prepared," said Karl K. Pence Jr., vice president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
"The training for teachers and administrators has been inadequate," said Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "We're not happy about it, and we don't expect our students to do well."
John H. Bloom, president of the state superintendents' association, had a more tempered view.
"If we really had our choice, we would have preferred a pilot effort this year," he said.
Bloom also backed the concept, and praised the state's decision to refrain from publishing data in this fall's school-system report card. But he said some educators are nervous about the tests because they have never been given before.
"I don't think it would be as valid as if we'd had a chance to do some field testing first, to work out the kinks," said Bloom.
That view gets some support from Ruth Mitchell, a nationally known testing expert and associate director of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, D.C.
"I think they've got great courage, but I wish they'd let it circulate for a year," said Mitchell, who delivered a similar message to the state Board of Education last fall.
Mitchell praised the concept and the work done by Maryland in creating its testing program. But she said teachers and students will need time to get used to the new format.
"It's less likely the thing will be a success without the massive changes that need to take place in teaching," she said.
As an example, she cited part of a prototype eighth-grade math test that involved design of a restaurant, and required students to take into consideration such factors as local zoning restrictions in constructing their design.
"It was an exciting, interesting idea, but teachers aren't used to teaching math that way," said Mitchell.
And she warned that at first "the results will probably be very distressing."
State education officials defend their decision to move ahead with an ambitious new testing program developed in less than a year's time.
The state has worked extensively with local education officials in developing the new program, said Robert Gabrys, testing director for the state Department of Education.
The tests themselves were developed in conjunction with CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill under contract from the state, which retains all rights to the tests.
But the specific "tasks" on those tests were written by a team of more than 200 Maryland teachers, based on outcomes approved by the state board last May.