A SHORT, SQUAT fifth-grade student with soda-bottle glasses busily shifts his glance from the blackboard to his answer booklet. He is diligently transcribing what is written on the board onto his paper. Not since I filled out those famous college blue books have I seen fingers fly so fast.
Unfortunately for my young friend, his efforts are for nought. The test he is taking is, alas, not an exercise in copying but the Maryland Scholastic Performance Assessment Program (acronymically pronounced miz-pap), a challenging test of thinking skills. The answer booklet is calling for responses to a passage the boy was supposed to read.
Later in the week, in a different fifth-grade class, a group of youngsters charged with conducting a group experiment struggles with and eventually abandons its efforts to understand the directions. The children while away the remaining time chatting quietly among themselves about a movie they have seen.
In a third school, groups of third-graders play a card game as a prelude to some related math tasks that they will have to do individually. Just as some of them appear to be understanding the game, their time is up. They must return to their seats to complete their individual assignments.
As I walk around the room, I notice a pattern in their responses. Many can give correct answers, but few are able to explain those answers, as is required on MSPAP tests. When asked, for example, why one outcome on a board-game spinner was more likely than others a boy wrote, ''My sister said that three is always a lucky number.'' Nearly half his classmates offered tautological explanations such as, ''Two is more likely because it will happen more often.''
Eighth-graders were less tolerant of their MSPAP experience and more vocal about it. After watching the examiner's brief demonstration of a galvanometer, and using a chart to try to ascertain the mathematical formula for Ohm's Law, one student gave up. Quietly closing his answer booklet, he exonerated his quick surrender to the task's difficulty by commenting that his teachers never taught him ''this stupid stuff.'' He laid down his head and checked out for the morning.
Others grumbled and generally put forth a half-hearted effort. At no time did I see a student use the entire time allotted to him for any particular task.
No payoff for students
Nor were there any anxious or regretful looks when the booklets were collected. And therein lies one of the major problems with MSPAP: It's a high-stakes assessment for teachers and a low-stakes assessment for students -- a fact that is not lost upon them. As some other classmates suggested to my daughter, who was taking the fifth-grade task in Montgomery County, doing badly in the MSPAP could be a way of getting back at an unpopular teacher. Though there was probably very little actual sabotage, it seems unlikely that students will knock themselves out for a task that has no personal payoff.
This is especially the case when you factor in another huge problem with the MSPAP, its length. Asking students as young as third-grade age to complete a six-step task involving several short to medium-length essays, after listening to directions and reading a fairly long passage is my definition of ''developmentally inappropriate.''
The inappropriate format is compounded by yet one more serious flaw of the MSPAP, its disconnect with the curriculum. A task that asks kids to design a board game or choose the best hiking trail for a given situation may be an interesting exercise, but presumably it doesn't assess the kinds of knowledge that students are acquiring in their classes.
Performance-based tests like the ones Maryland is using are clearly the wave of the future, but unless the MSPAP is modified to ensure student accountability, a closer connection to the curriculum and a reasonable length, this brave new world of student assessment is likely to flunk its most important test -- the reaction of the public.
Craig Schulze is an area resource coordinator in the Baltimore City Public Schools.
Pub Date: 5/23/97