Seven adults endure statewide test and win a deeper understanding


May 11, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

They went to bed early the night before. They remembered to eat breakfast. A few even cut up before the big test, joking to slice away at their tension.

Two hours and many sighs later, the seven adults who submitted yesterday to Maryland's critical-thinking exam for fifth-graders earned a payoff for their anxiety. They called it understanding.

Parents and teachers, a principal, a city councilman, an executive, a news editor -- all penned answers to questions from the test used to judge the quality of Maryland schools and the progress of education reform.

As the timekeeper prodded, they grimaced. They scratched their heads. And once, when their science hypothesis proved correct, their relief resounded in the Maryland Department of Education conference room as a long, loud "ahhhh."

At the request of The Sun, they sought insights into contemporary education reform by completing tasks from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test, which thousands of students are taking this week. The tests are different from those parents are used to -- they're designed to test thinking, rather than knowledge of facts, and call for some work in groups.

How'd the test-takers do? Understand up front that they didn't earn scores because they took only a fraction of a five-day exam -- and used questions from the 1992 and 1993 tests so as to protect the security of the test that children are taking right now.

But did they pass?

They learned, they said, that mastering knowledge today means a lot more than storing it up in one's head.

The test-takers at Table Two stared for a few seconds at instructions for a science experiment: Build a hydrometer, a device to measure the differences in samples of fresh and salty water. None was a scientist -- and Maryland fifth-graders aren't either, of course. All had started the exercise as strangers, as do many students when the time comes for group tasks.

Hydrometer. The word alone seemed intimidating to some members of the group: James R. Wolgamott, principal of Essex Elementary School in Baltimore County; Patricia Pender, mother of two students at Furman Templeton Elementary in Baltimore (one of three schools designated this year for reform because of low test scores); Kathy Yealdhall, PTO president at Gardenville Elementary in Baltimore; M. William Salganik, education editor of The Sun.

Mr. Wolgamott reached for a drinking straw, one of the hydrometer parts provided by the test coordinator. Following a sketch and written directions, group members snipped a short piece of the clear straw, plugged its end with a lump of clay and dropped in two BBs.

They plopped the simple device into a clear glass of fresh water -- clay end down. Then they moved it to the salt water. In both glasses, the straw floated.

In test booklets, they drew what they saw and labeled the parts of the picture.

Wide open spaces

After that, there were no multiple-choice questions. No fill-in-the-bubble score sheets. Only the empty, wide spaces between black lines, waiting for diagrams and written answers.

Time to compare observations.

"What's the depth of the water?" Mr. Wolgamott asked in the hushed tone the test-takers shared. They measured with a ruler, then moved the straw to the other glass.

"It doesn't look that different," said Ms. Yealdhall, leaning so close her chin nearly touched the table.

As the time ticked away, a silent anxiety mounted, and the group members began to bond. They debated the best way to compare what they saw: Measure the length of straw extending above the water? The distance from the bottom of the glass to the bottom of the straw? The space between the water surface and the top of the glass?

Holding the ruler alongside the cup wasn't helping: They were trying to see the difference in fractions of an inch, and it seemed so very slight. They switched to centimeters -- and still couldn't see much difference.

"We're in trouble," Mr. Salganik said.

L A minute later, Ms. Yealdhall's spirits buoyed with an idea.

"I think we ought to measure what's showing out of the water," she said. "If you were going to measure it in the Chesapeake Bay, you wouldn't measure all the way to the bottom. Not if you're on a boat, you wouldn't do that."

Then she suggested a course of action: Put the ruler marks on the hydrometer. Mr. Salganik performed the operation, marking off centimeters along the straw. Each test-taker recorded the measurements:

In the salt water, 5 centimeters of straw sat below the water's surface. In the fresh, 5 1/2 centimeters sat below the water's surface.

Next question: Predict how the hydrometer might float in a cup in which are mixed equal parts fresh water and salt water. Quietly, each recorded his prediction -- and the reasons supporting it.

"Ahhhhhhhh," they piped up in unison when the hydrometer bobbed to a stop with 5 1/4 centimeters of straw below the surface of the mixture.

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