Week of state tests becomes rite of spring

May 08, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Before they could administer the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests last week, Baltimore County educators had to go to the grocery store. To buy raisins and paper towels.

Not for snack time, but for an experiment in which some of the county's 7,000 fifth-graders watched the raisins as they reacted to different solutions.

The raisins were part of this year's statewide tests, and a particularly "boring" part, according to some young test-takers. But the tests, raisins and all, have become a rite of spring in Maryland schools and a reason for angst the rest of the year.

Now in its fourth revision, MSPAP is the latest effort in Maryland's 20-year campaign to hold its schools accountable. Altogether, 160,000 students will spend part of a week taking the tests. Third- and eighth-graders will start tomorrow.

With its group activities, resource books and materials, such as raisins, dirt, celery and toy cars, MSPAP bears no resemblance to the standardized national tests that educators and parents have relied on for years -- with their fill-in-the-circle answer sheets that required only No. 2 pencils.

Developed by the Maryland State Department of Education, MSPAP is a series of timed "tasks" that attempt to measure how well schools are meeting the state's education goals in mathematics, science, social studies, reading, writing and language usage.

Some tasks require students to gather information or do experiments in small groups, then individually write the answers -- with an explanation of their work. In some cases, teachers perform an experiment for a group of students, and the youngsters use the findings for their answers.

MSPAP costs $2.5 million a year for development, scoring and materials, education officials said. That's $16.25 per student -- about three times as much as standardized tests. Students spend 1.4 million classroom hours taking the test and possibly that much time preparing for it.

Since MSPAP tests were introduced in 1991, they have been cursed, debated, ridiculed and substantially revised. But despite dreadful reviews, dismal results and continuing glitches that have made it impossible to compare results from one year to the next, the test has never been written off.

Growing more comfortable

Now in year four, many Baltimore County teachers say they're more comfortable with MSPAP. And they say their students are better prepared.

"My anxiety level is fairly low," said Barbara Skillman, a fifth-grade teacher at Edgemere Elementary School. "I have lived through this and seen the children live through the test."

Richard Bavaria, director of arts and humanities for the county schools, said, "It used to be a dark cloud. It's not frightening anymore."

Some of these feelings come from resignation. Others stem from familiarity. Many of this year's fifth-graders took the MSPAP in third grade, and the eighth-graders who will take it this week took it in fifth grade.

In addition, MSPAP is everywhere. Schools are devoting parents' nights to it. Teachers are drawing it into their everyday classwork, and some schools are offering prizes to students for showing up to take the tests. That's vital, because a school's results are based on the number of students eligible to take the tests, with absentees getting zeros.

The tests have changed and generally improved each year, teachers say. They're much better than they were the first year when "we watched our children do poorly and held ourselves accountable," Ms. Skillman said.

Still, some educators voice deep concern about vocabulary that's too difficult and children who are demoralized because they aren't reading at their grade level and can't understand test instructions. The time constraints also are an issue.

Although Baltimore County school officials agreed to allow reporters to observe children taking the tests, state officials refused permission, saying it might increase students' tension and violate test security.

Satisfactory scores are few

Whether educators' optimism improves scores remains to be seen. Last year, only a handful of schools statewide had satisfactory scores. In Baltimore County, only nine of 94 elementary schools were satisfactory in even one subject, and none of the 25 middle schools was satisfactory.

Schools that are not satisfactory by the year 2000 risk state takeover.

"I think the MSPAP results will be better," said Paul Mazza, the county's director of student evaluations. "I don't think we'll see massive jumps, but I think we'll begin to see movement.

"The tests were purposely designed to be very difficult because the school reform people were saying that the status quo won't )) do."

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