It's not a score card but a road map. That's how Harford and state educators view the results released last week of a new state-designed test for Maryland third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.
Nonetheless, Harford County students mostly did better than the state averages on the initial Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests given last May.
The test results are meant to guide public school systems toward improved teaching so students can meet proficiency goals by the target year 2000.
Few of the 160,000 state students tested last May scored in the upper levels -- and most were in the bottom levels.
Teachers and school officials said the initial results offer a challengeto revamp curriculum and instruction so students can better handle real-life, problem-solving situations.
"What an opportunity for success we have," said Ronald Eaton of the Harford school board. The content and direction of the program in promoting integrated problem-solving skills is "just great," he said.
"I'm not taken aback at all by these results because it is a brand-new test and there is no history to look at."
He joined others in warning that the test results should not be compared to other widely used tests that have numericalscores or pass-fail results.
Writing was the weakest area for Harford students, compared to statewide results, while county pupils were significantly stronger in mathematics and language usage.
The tests measure the thinking skills of pupils in reading, writing, math, and language against set proficiency levels.
State officials stressed that the tests measured skills that had not been directly taught in the classroom.
"I think that we are taking the risk to dare to make a difference," said Ray R. Keech, Harford public schools superintendent. He called the "criterion-based" test a more accurate reflection of how students apply what they have learned in school.
Christine Haggett, president of the Harford County Education Association, said that teachers were concerned that they were unfamiliar with the test format and that students were not being tested on what they had been taught.
"The jury is still out on how the results will be used," she said. "If they are used to improve the curriculum and instruction, then they should be beneficial."
But she disagreed with the perception that students have not been taught critical thinking skillsin class and that teachers have focused largely on rote-memorizationand fact-based education.
"We've all tried to teach children in critical and analytical thinking," the teachers union president said. "This (program) is just one such approach."
In nine hours of testing over a two-week period, students were asked to write a persuasive speech, to design charts and graphs and make projections, and to write long and short essays. All of the tests required writing and communication skills.
Although results varied widely from school to school, Harford students as a whole had higher percentages in Levels 1 and 2, the highest proficiency levels, than statewide averages.
Harford eighth-graders, for example, had 9 percent in the top two levels in language, compared to 6.2 percent for the state average. Harford third-grade pupils placed 6.7 percent in those two levels for languagecompared to 5.5 percent statewide.
In math, Harford fifth-gradersplaced 6.3 percent in Level 1 and 2, compared with 4.4 percent in those top levels for all state students.
But in writing, the percentage of Harford fifth- and eighth-graders scoring in the top two levels was slightly below the statewide averages. Harford third-graders barely exceeded the state average on the writing test.
About 40 percent of students throughout the state scored at the lowest level, Level 5, in each of the four tests. The percentage of all Harford students at Level 5 ranged from 28 percent in mathematics to 35 percent in writing.
Maryland students in the three grades will be tested in the same four areas, plus science and social studies, this May. The tests will also be given 11th-grade students for the first time.
The results of this May's tests will be used to reshape curriculum and the tests themselves, educators said.
Class instruction has not beenchanged to address the tests' demands since they were given last spring.
"We hope to begin turning the system next year to meet these goals," Eaton said of the Harford schools. "It's not going to turn 180 degrees overnight, but we should see some significant movement nextyear."