Nearly 70 percent of Maryland students scored at the lowest levels of a state-designed test to see if they can apply what they've learned in the classroom.
State officials insisted that the potentially embarrassing numbers were unimportant, however.
"It's important that we put this in the proper context," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who assembled 350 educators from around the state yesterday to announce the long-awaited results of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).
State education officials took great pains to downplay the results and treated their audience to an hour of speeches and explanations before releasing any figures.
"You could say we did everything not to report the numbers," said Assistant State Superintendent Robert Gabrys. "We should not immediately use [the results] as the baseline. Next year, we will be looking at standards and baseline."
About 160,000 students in the third, fifth and eighth grades took the performance test last May for the first time.
Overall, fewer than 2 percent of the students scored at Level 1 -- the highest of five levels of proficiency. About 40 percent scored at Level 5, which is considered unacceptable. Another 35 percent scored at Level 4, the next highest.
Students in Baltimore scored substantially lower than the state average, while students in wealthy Howard and Montgomery counties were among the highest. But even in the wealthier counties, many students had trouble.
Unlike many standardized tests, which rely on memorization and multiple choice questions, the new performance test is an attempt to mirror real-life situations.
"We know as teachers that the real education of students is not the rote memorization of a plethora of information to be regurgitated on a multiple choice test," Maryland State Teachers Association President Jane Stern said.
In nine hours of testing over several days, students were asked to read published literary works, write short and long essays, draw graphs and charts, and work through elaborate word problems. The tests themselves were developed at a cost of $1.7 million in conjunction with CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill.
The specific items on the tests were designed by a team of more than 200 Maryland teachers, following broad requirements approved by the state Board of Education. The tests were scored individually by 300 specially trained Maryland teachers.
Administrators and teachers said the results shouldn't be used as a score card but as a guide for the future. They point out that school systems have until the year 2000 to achieve the goals of MSPAP.
Elva Bowens, a Caroline County math resource teacher, said, "This is a long process. We don't expect results overnight. This whole process validates what we want to do."
Here are responses from metropolitan-area education officials:
* Anne Arundel County. Thomas J. Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said that even if the state doesn't want to emphasize test scores, the scores still will be scrutinized.
"No matter what they say or what they do, it's going to come out that the schools are failing," Mr. Paolino said. "No one disagrees with the goals they have set. But to ask us to do this in the amount of time they have given us is unrealistic. To ask us to do this with no money is totally unrealistic."
* Baltimore. Lorretta Johnson, vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the test results prove that the MSPAP is "not so great after all."
"Our problem is we keep jumping from one program to another," Ms. Johnson said. "We don't have any uniformity." She said officials need to stop downplaying the effect money has on implementing and evaluating the test.
But city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, whose school system has far less money than suburban neighbors, said he is trying not to fall into the money trap.
"Funding is a very important issue," Dr. Amprey said. "But if we continue to fall into that trap where we continue to blame each other, then we can't make any progress.
"The fact is that there are some things we can do without the funding. We cannot let the numbers discourage us," Dr. Amprey added.
* Baltimore County. Ed Veit, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, gave little credence to the results, saying, "I think the test was put together to be failed.
"Now they can say, 'Look, the schools aren't doing a good job,' " he said. "If we had passed it, they wouldn't have bothered with us."
* Carroll County. This suburban county had fewer students at the highest and lowest levels than most other counties.
"I am sure there's going to be reaction statewide that [the test's standards] are too high," Superintendent R. Edward Shilling said. But he said the data give principals and teachers room to improve and "realign" the curriculum.
* Harford County. School officials were pleased with results that showed their students placing above the state averages in nearly every test in all three grades.
"The new criterion test is a more authentic report," said Harford Superintendent Ray Keech. "I think that we are taking the risk to dare to make a difference."
School Improvement Committees established in every Harford school three years ago should make it easier for the county to develop the curriculum and instruction necessary to meet the higher proficiency level goals by the statewide target year 2000, said system spokesman Albert F. Seymour.
* Howard County. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said he was "pleased in the sense that this will give us the kind of information we really need to adjust our instructional program."
Dr. Hickey said information from the new test should be more helpful for teachers than the now-scrapped California Achievement Tests.