Students give exams a trial run

High-schoolers' results will help officials refine questions

More pilot tests in works

Plan is to require assessments to receive diploma

January 14, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

More than 29,000 Maryland high-schoolers have been guinea pigs this week -- the first students to get a crack at rigorous exams that will later be required for graduation.

How these students do on the pilot tests won't affect them, or their grades. But their performance on the five exams -- the first set of a bevy of high-stakes high-school tests in the works -- could have far-reaching effects.

State education officials will look at the teen-agers' answers to see which test questions are good and which need work.

Known as the high school assessments, five of the end-of-course exams -- biology, English I, algebra, geometry and government -- are being field-tested in schools this week. In a few years, state officials plan to require that students pass the exams before they get a diploma.

Now they're working out the kinks.

"I think it's critical that we've taken that kind of approach to it," said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach. "Some states have launched headlong into assessments."

In Howard County, about 1,750 students from three high schools participated in the pilot testing -- River Hill in Clarksville, Long Reach in Columbia and Howard in Ellicott City. Students at these schools take courses that last a semester rather than a year.

Elsewhere in the Baltimore region, more than 13,000 students participated in the pilots -- about 1,100 in Anne Arundel, 6,500 in Baltimore City, 2,900 in Baltimore County, 2,400 in Carroll County and 430 in Harford County.

School systems around the state will participate in another round of field testing in May -- including all Howard County high schools, said Joan Heiss, the county schools' manager of testing and assessment.

School officials won't learn how the teen-agers performed, however. State Department of Education officials are using the pilot simply to see which questions need to go back to the drawing board.

Student results will be sent to schools after more pilot tests next academic year.

State school officials expect that today's seventh-graders will become the first high school class required to pass some of the exams.

Eventually, there will be 12 exams, and students will have to pass 10.

Peiffer figures the pilots make good sense not only for those charged with refining the exams but also for local high school administrators. Many haven't given standardized tests during the school day for nearly a decade, he said.

"Some of them needed to look at how they would manage the test during the school day and how they would maintain security," Peiffer said. "It's a good practice for them."

For instance: Where do you put all the test-takers? (Long Reach High School officials opted for the cafeteria.)

But 16-year-old Jingya Wang, a sophomore at River Hill, was not impressed by her experience with the pilot -- which came as projects were due and final exams loomed. A straight-A student taking an advanced-placement government course, she noticed that many of the test questions on the government assessment were never covered in class.

She figured that's because the advanced-placement class is in-depth, leaving less time for some topics -- while the test was "more general."

Wang's suggestion for state school officials: "I think they might want to talk to some of the students and teachers and see what's actually going on in the classroom."

"Right now, it's not ready yet," she said of the government exam.

Heather Brundage, a sophomore at Hammond High School in Columbia who's also in an advanced-placement government class, wouldn't mind taking the exam when it comes to her school during the next round of pilots in the spring.

She's curious about what the high school assessments cover, and how officials will account for the range of students who will take the tests because the material covered in regular classes and honors classes can differ.

"What did they look at to find the average?" wonders Brundage, a member of the Maryland Association of Student Councils. "I realize it's a tough job for them."

Parents, meanwhile, are nervous about the high-stakes exams and have many questions, said Ellen Flynn Giles, chairwoman of the Howard schools' Citizens Advisory Committee.

"People are very worried about what's going to happen to the kids who do not pass," she said. "It'll be very interesting to see what the result of the first round is."

State school officials will be looking carefully at performance as they analyze the pilots, Peiffer said. The standard for passing the exams hasn't been set.

"We're going to make sure students can perform at that level and can pass those tests," he said. "We're not going to put a system in place that will cause large failures."

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