Skills test stumps students Two-thirds rank at lowest levels in state exam

May 25, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Maryland State Board of EducationStaff Writer

Conceding that Maryland has "a long way to go" in preparing its students for the 21st century, State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick released statewide test results yesterday showing that two-thirds of all students scored at the lowest levels in four different subjects.

Despite the low level of mastery on the Maryland School Performance Assessments, the results are "not surprising to any of us," she said. "These are very high-level skills we're assessing. They are geared to the year 2000."

The innovative and often controversial tests are supposed to assess the skills students will need in the next century, Mrs. Grasmick said, and officials did not expect high levels of achievement yet.

Although the statewide scores were released yesterday, the State Board of Education still hasn't determined what level of achievement is satisfactory.

Officials also said this year's scores can't be compared with last year's because some portions of the test were rewritten to deal with complaints from teachers and parents, and two sections were added this year.

The tests have been given to third- , fifth- and eighth-graders in all state public schools for the last three years. Yesterday's results were for tests given to about 180,000 students in May 1992.

They measure proficiency in reading, mathematics, social studies and science. But they depart radically from standardized tests by measuring how students apply their skills and knowledge to real-life situations, rather than how well they have memorized facts. Youngsters are even expected to work together in small groups before answering certain problems.

For example, students may be asked to read a short passage about snowfall and then use what they know to figure out which areas in a topographic map of the United States would be likely to have white winters. Other "tasks," as they're called, may require students to conduct experiments, measure things and draw graphs of their results.

The scores clustered at the lower end of the scale. In reading, for example, only 0.2 percent of the state's third-graders scored at Level 1, which was deemed the highest, while 29.3 percent were at Level 5, the lowest bracket.

Another 39.9 percent were in Level 4, meaning that more than 69 percent of the youngsters were in the two lowest brackets.

Results from individual counties and their schools will be released by June 15. They were generally not available with the ** state results because each county must convert the raw numbers into percentages comparable to state data. Anne Arundel County did release its countywide results, but not individual school scores.

Teachers, parents confused

From the outset, the tests have caused confusion among parents, teachers and school administrators, and it is difficult to say what the scores mean. Officials explained them yesterday ++ only by way of example to educators gathered at a workshop where the test results were released.

Teachers were shown a math problem and then samples of Level 1, Level 3 and Level 5 answers taken from actual tests. The Level 5 answer was not only wrong and lacking a rationale, but also had one of two words misspelled.

Although the state and individual school districts released the performance test scores for 1991, the two years' results cannot be compared, state officials said, because the test was changed and social studies and science were added.

The 1991 tests are being called a pilot and their results have effectively been thrown out. Yesterday's results will be used as the baseline against which future scores are compared. The state has not yet established testing standards for schools -- what scores constitute a satisfactory or excellent rating. The state Department of Education will take its first step toward that today when it presents proposed performance standards to the state Board of Education.

jTC When performance standards are in place, the tests will be used to judge how well schools are teaching the skills the state department has determined students will need. The state has hinted that it will intervene when schools consistently fall short. "The standards will be very rigorous, but we think attainable," said Mrs. Grasmick.

Assistant State Superintendent of Education Robert Gabrys hinted at what those standards would involve when he said, "We typically think that Level 3 is where we expect children to be."

Although the test results are also designed as a tool to let teachers' know their students' strengths and weakness, the 1992 results were not made known until after the 1993 tests had already been given.

"As a diagnostic tool, they are worthless," said Jane Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers' Association.

'Not tried and true'

"This test is not a tried-and-true test. What they are in is a test development process," she said. "We don't know that any child anywhere has ever learned to do any of these things by the age they are being tested."

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