Children suffer while the state fiddles with its test

May 02, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

A third-grade teacher was pleased to see how well her class did the math computations for "area" and "perimeter." But, mindful of the state tests that are being administered this week, she asked her students to write a paragraph explaining these concepts.

Dismayed to see from their writing that they wouldn't know whether to carpet a room or put a fence around it, she went to the chalkboard and began again.

This is the essence of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The tests given to third- , fifth- and eighth-graders beginning this week -- and to 11th-graders in the future -- ask children not to recite memorized facts, but to apply what they know to everyday life. The tests are designed fundamentally to change the nature of education: to teach thinking and problem-solving in an age of calculators and spell-check.

Four years ago, this was pushed on teachers and students in a rush. Unprepared themselves, teachers were expected to prepare kids for a complex set of experiments and writing exercises they did not see until the morning of the test. The results reflected that. The scores were not just low, they were laughable, and while the teachers fumed, the parents dismissed the test as another fad.

The state has spent three years digging itself out of a terrible public relations hole. The writing and the administration of the test have improved tenfold, even if the results have not, and the antipathy of teachers is diminishing. But the distancing of the parents has not.

What does this test tell me about my child? The state has never answered that.

The test is a mystery. Parents cannot see this year's test and they can't see last year's because some questions -- expensive to develop -- are used again. At some point in the future, there will be a booklet explaining it to parents with sample questions. Parents might rightly expect that that should have come first.

The scoring of last May's test was not complete until February of this year, so even if parents were given their child's score, which they are not, it would be of no use in plotting out a subsequent year's education with a teacher.

No child takes the entire test -- it is too long -- so your child's score would have little meaning for you in any case. This is not a test of facts, this is a test of the application of knowledge. Most of his answers were arrived at in cooperation with other children, so you cannot tell for sure what he knows.

So, you can reach no conclusions about your child because the work is cooperative, no conclusions about the teacher because the testing groups are randomly assembled, and no conclusions about your school because all schools have scored abysmally.

How does a parent reconcile these test results with all those A's and B's on her child's report card? A parent cannot, so a parent simply ignores the test.

This is a test of schools and teaching, not of children. There is nothing in it that will tell you how your child measures up against children in California, New York or Iowa. After five days and nine hours of testing, there is no piece of paper that says how your child did, and this is tough on parents.

What about the kids? How do they fare?

The test is great fun for those high achievers for whom education is usually great fun. They get to play with thermometers and Crisco and food color and string and do experiments and then write about them. They get to debate or think about complex issues and then write about how to solve them. And their responses thrill the teachers who shepherd these bright, engaged learners every day.

But for too many kids, the test is intimidating and defeating. It requires reading skills, thinking skills and life experiences these kids don't have. Or it requires them to make connections that are beyond their level of reasoning. This test breaks their hearts and the hearts of their teachers. Ask the teachers who see their children of low or modest ability sit in front of the test, lost and downcast.

The old way of educating -- learn a fact and spit it back -- has to make way for teaching the kinds of skills kids need to succeed: how to gather information, how to process it, how to work with others in applying it to a task and how to express themselves in writing.

The ideas behind the tests are the right ideas. But before this test can work, the test-writers have a lot to learn. So do the teachers. So do the parents.

While we figure it out, too many children suffer another defeat at school.

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