At Owings Mills Elementary School in Baltimore County, yesterday morning started with No. 2 pencils. After a year of fanfare, the new state test had arrived in the classrooms of third- and fifth-graders across Maryland.
For a test that had generated controversy and anxiety for months, it was a remarkably quiet beginning.
"I think it was a good experience for the children," said Bob Jones, the school's reading specialist. "I don't think they lost anything educationally by taking the test. It was a lot of the same sorts of things they would have done in the classroom."
In Paulette Hall's third-grade class, bright-faced children were nonchalant yesterday morning as they filled in their names on computer sheets. The windows were open to the sound of traffic whooshing by and the occasional siren.
Ms. Hall handed out scratch paper and crayons and set out three dictionaries while children rustled and squirmed and whispered, dropping pencils and picking them up again, tilting back on their chairs, yawning and stretching.
The first assignment was to draw a picture depicting the children's recollection of a time when they were in trouble and someone helped them.
Children traded crayons and whispers. Eight-year-old Rachel Wolfson wrote in tiny print on her scratch paper: "I got hurt," and drew a picture of a girl with a string of tears traveling down her face. A grown-up was drawn reaching out to touch the child.
Then the children turned to the story in their reading book. It was called Wilbur's Hat, and opened with an illustration of a snake wearing a top hat. In six pages, the reader learned that Wilbur was a snake so
aged that he ate only mashed vegetables and ground-up acorns, and that he loved his hat.
One day, the King of the Crows stole Wilbur's hat. The animals of the forest banded together and came
up with a scheme to recover it. There was a happy ending, with Wilbur wearing his hat once again at a moonlit feast enlivened by a squirrel playing the flute.
The story was followed by a recipe for making "snake snacks" -- snake-shaped crackers. The children had an hour to read the stories and do 13 tasks associated with the stories.
They had to put themselves in the place of the King of the Crows as he wrote a letter -- using his best grammar and spelling -- to a friend describing what he had done. They had to answer questions involving perceptions, backing their perceptions with details from the stories. They had to arrange simple information from the story in a three-column chart.
"Guys, a lot of this is just like what you do in class," Ms. Hall told them at one point. "Just think of it as another fun assignment you're doing in class."
"Fun!" exclaimed Amy Justice, 10. "Yeah, fun," Ms. Hall insisted. "It's a good story!"
After the booklets and papers had been collected, the kids gave their verdicts on the test. Most seemed to agree that this was easier than the standardized multiple-choice state test they took earlier this year -- though Maryland educators believe that they have considerably raised performance standards with the new test.
"It was easy because the only thing you had to do is look back and see what was in the book," said Harold Catlett, 9.
Michael Zauberman, 10, disagreed. "I think it was harder because with the [other] test you just had to circle things. Here you had to write."
Amber Kracke, 9, said she had been nervous. But today, she said, "At the one part I forgot I was doing a test. I thought I was just doing classwork."
Ms. Hall was among the many teachers who shared misgivings about the test. Seeing it yesterday for the first time, she was reassured.
"What I like about this particular test is it gives them the opportunity to give any response and possibly get some credit for it," she said.
She worried, though, about children with weak reading skills -- skills that are in demand in both the reading and language portions of the new test. "I'm sure there are going to be children who do very well on this test and there are going to be chil
dren that don't simply because they didn't understand the question," she says.
Principal Shirley H. Harden said the test is in sync with the kind of teaching Owings Mills has concentrated on for the past two years. "I thought it was great," she said.
Down the hall sat C. David Copenhaver, the assistant principal and the school's testing coordinator. Mr. C., as he is known in the school, spent seven hours before yesterday morning preparing the paperwork, counting and sorting test packets into boxes labeled with teachers'
names and classrooms.
For him, the extra labor paid off.
"I was walking down the hall and these two girls said, 'Wow, Mr. C., what a neat test,' " he says. "And these were unsolicited comments. And I asked a couple of boys how they did and they gave me a thumbs up. And the teachers said it's so much better than those tests where they choose A, B, C, or D. It was worth all the effort."
Ms. Hall wandered in with her box of test booklets. "It wasn't really that bad," she said.
""It was the bad dreams last night," said Cyndra Russell, a fifth-grade teacher.
"You know what, I had a couple of nightmares last night," Ms. Hall remembered. But "Today when I saw the test and looked at it. . . . They'll do well."
Tomorrow, the language tests continue and testing will include eighth-graders. But for today, the teachers at Owings Mills had met the enemy -- and found it to be less than fearsome.
Ms. Hall: "So can we go out and have a pina colada now?"