Less talk, more work looms in classrooms Md. graduation tests to shift emphasis to hands-on learning

February 06, 1996|By Mary Maushard and Marego Athans | Mary Maushard and Marego Athans,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Anne Haddad contributed to this article.

Tough new graduation tests will have a major impact on the way Maryland high schoolers are taught -- and the changes will soon be felt in classrooms.

Teachers are expected to lecture less, as students spend more time on group projects, science experiments and other hands-on learning. College-preparatory algebra is likely to become a requirement for students throughout the state, and social studies courses will include more sophisticated elements of economics.

And some school systems will add specific courses to meet test standards. In Baltimore County, for example, students will take an earth sciences course that hasn't been created yet.

Just how and how much instruction changes depends on each school district's current curriculum, still-developing state learning goals and the final design of the tests.

But change is inevitable, educators agree.

The State Board of Education endorsed the graduation tests -- and some goals -- last week. The new English standards come with a suggested reading list that includes authors such as Edward Albee, Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer and Eugene Ionesco.

"There aren't many easy reads in there," said Wayne Gersen, superintendent of schools in Washington County and a member of the state committee that worked on the new testing program. "It's going to be very difficult for a teacher to assign easy materials."

"There's an expectation that they'll be writing with a greater degree of clarity."

In Carroll County, "we're going to have to do more with language structure -- grammar, mechanics, usage," said Barry Gelsinger, that county's English supervisor.

Designed to provide consistency among school systems and to produce students with skills appropriate to the 21st-century workplace, the tests will follow required courses in English, mathematics, science and social studies.

The first tests are scheduled to appear in schools in 1999, in a pilot program that won't affect students' graduation. The state will start giving the tests officially in 2001 to the Class of 2004.

"I think it is going to change instruction, especially if this test is going to require students to perform in ways that are different from traditional tests," said Dr. Richard Bavaria, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Baltimore County.

Although the tests are not yet written, they are expected to put less emphasis on multiple choice questions and more on problems that require students to apply what they know.

Last week, the state board approved "core learning goals" in English and Science, and returned two other subjects, mathematics and social studies, to their committees to resolve some problems. Each subject has four broad goals, defined by more specific expectations and indicators.

As standards increase for high school students, educators expect the changes to filter down to elementary and middle schools. But many of the changes at the early grades -- a shift to group learning projects, for instance -- have already been made because of the Maryland State Performance Assessment tests, given in grades 3, 5 and 8.

In some ways, the high school tests represent a "trickle-up effect" of the statewide program, said Don Morrison, spokesman for Harford County schools.

There is, however, one big difference in the two sets of tests: The younger students cannot fail a grade because they do poorly on the statewide tests.

But the high school students will have to pass the tests to graduate.

In Montgomery County, which spends more per pupil than any other district in the state, the reaction is the opposite. Officials there say that their standards are superior to those spelled out in the new goals, and that teachers will waste precious time preparing for a test that is beneath students' abilities.

"There is a big fear in this school system and other well-developed systems that these state outcomes will result in a less rigorous program than we're offering, and we don't want that to happen," said Gerard Consuegra, director of the division of curriculum coordination and implementation in Montgomery County schools. "It's going to hurt."

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