Redesign of school final tests is sought Exams to be standard across county, state

March 17, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The final exam is being reinvented in Carroll and across the state.

After a year of French, students have to do more than conjugate verbs on paper. They have to do so aloud, while imagining themselves in a Paris cafe over an espresso and flan, perhaps, discussing a movie they just saw.

The algebra I test is more than a series of equations. Students might be asked to plot a pizza fund-raiser, figuring out how many students to recruit, what kind of ingredients to buy and how long they would have to work to raise a specific amount.

These beefed-up end-of-year exams are a local movement a few steps ahead of a Maryland initiative to develop a series of state tests students must pass to get a high school diploma.

Traditional final exams were written by individual teachers. The new tests are to be the same throughout the county for each course and grade level.

"One of the most important differences is it's a countywide standard all kids, all teachers, at all schools," said Barry Gelsinger, the county's supervisor for English and foreign languages.

High school teachers and supervisors are working with peers across the state to develop a "bank" of test questions and scenarios they can share, all designed to measure whether students learned specific skills, said Gregory Eckles, director of curriculum for the county schools.

In Carroll, foreign language teachers were the first to develop tests for all their courses about four years ago. Math, science and business departments are catching up this year. The goal is to have a countywide test for every high school course within three years, Dr. Eckles said.

But unlike the high-stakes tests planned by the state, these local exams will be only part of a student's final grade. The completed exams will tell teachers whether students have learned the material and can apply it.

More important, Dr. Eckles said, administrators can look at results from all schools to see whether students across the county are learning the material.

"We have raised the expectations we have of all kids," Mr. Gelsinger said. "This allows us to see whether all kids, in all classrooms, are learning the curriculum content. So that it's not a matter of luck that a student was in this teacher's class or that school."

The tests should determine whether the student knows the subject and can apply it to a new situation. And it may not all involve paper and pencil.

The first half of a test at the end of French I, for example, could consist of this: A pair of students are to pretend they are sitting in a Paris cafe after seeing a movie. They have to order their beverage and dessert. While waiting for their order to arrive, they must discuss what they liked about the movie and why, and point out something about the cafe that bothers them.

The scenario provides an opportunity for teachers to determine whether students met this list of skills: ability to order food, conjugate verbs, use past and present tenses and discuss activities.

The foreign language teachers videotaped a series of these oral exams and watched them together to establish consistent scoring standards they all can use, Mr. Gelsinger said.

While this high school work is going on, elementary and middle school teachers are developing countywide assessments for younger students, Dr. Eckles said. These will include testing throughout the year, unlike end-of-year exams for high school students.

The emphasis Carroll schools are placing on how to measure what students are learning is the latest stage in the outcomes-based education philosophy the school board adopted in 1993.

The first two years, teachers and parents spent summers writing the "essential curriculum," a list of what all students should know and be able to do by the end of a unit, course or grade level.

For example, a French student ought to be able, with just a few minutes of preparation, to order from a cafe menu.

"When we began the whole process with outcomes, we wanted to identify what the essential things were that kids would learn in every course," said Assistant Superintendent Gary Dunkleberger. "What we're doing now is determining how well students are learning what we identified as the essential curriculum."

The idea is to have a clear match between the classroom work and the assessment. Students are told in detail what is expected of them. The testing should be a lot like the instruction. For example, a French teacher would use activities in class similar to the Parisian cafe test.

"That's the difference between mastery learning and mystery learning," Mr. Gelsinger said. "It used to be a matter of luck whether you studied the right thing before a test. Our goal is to be more specific to kids, and say, 'This is what you need to know.' "

County educators hope the state tests, which have yet to be written, will be compatible with the local tests.

"If the state does a good job," the tests will be similar, said Mr. Gelsinger, who has confidence in what his teachers have developed. "We're basing our work on sound educational reasoning."

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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