Md. education put to the test

EDUCATION BEAT

Exam: State officials try to create a parallel to the High School Assessment for disabled students. It could be a national model, or a failure.

April 11, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AS CHIEF of testing at the State Department of Education, Gary Heath says he seldom "gets a chance to exercise creativity." The psychometric world is usually pretty boring.

But these days Heath says he's excited, and so are his colleagues on West Baltimore Street. They've taken on a challenge that could put Maryland on the map of national school testing. It could also result in failure.

The challenge is this: Create a test that's the equal of the state High School Assessment but that can be taken by disabled students and others who simply can't handle traditional "pencil-on-paper" assessments.

Last month, the state school board appointed a task force to see whether such a "comparable assessment" can be designed as a parallel to the HSA, which the Class of 2009 (this year's seventh-graders) and all kids after that will have to pass to earn a diploma.

Think sci-fi test of the future. Think technology. Think Stephen Hawking, the brilliant British theoretical physicist who no doubt would ace the HSA tests in English, algebra, government and biology, although he has a form of Lou Gehrig's disease and has been unable to talk or write conventionally for many years.

It's a complex challenge, legally and psychometrically. Because passing the test will be required for graduation, the new test must be comparable to the HSA in content and difficulty. If it's easier or more difficult, if it doesn't cover the same subject matter, lawsuits could result.

"It would be designed not only for special cases, but for anyone," says Heath, who along with his colleagues is already consulting testing experts at the University of Maryland.

Heath says there aren't a lot of children with test phobia, those who freeze when confronted with a standard exam, "but those kids ought to be on a level playing field with the others."

But how do you test, for example, writing without requiring the test taker to put pen to paper? Heath believes you can with technology. Hawking wrote a best-selling book (A Brief History of Time), Heath notes, without putting anything down on paper.

"Can you demonstrate composing orally? I think so. Can I talk to a computer? Of course I can. Modern computers can familiarize themselves with your language. We already have software for blind and severely dyslexic children that talks to them. They can even choose an English or Spanish accent. And we have computers scoring essays that can check for content, context and tone.

"I didn't think it was possible, but I've seen it," Heath says.

Education Department lawyer Valerie Cloutier notes there are already alternatives to the HSA, such as the Advanced Placement tests, but they are traditional tests. (Maryland also accommodates severely disabled kids, giving them extra time or reading test questions to them.)

But no one has come up with an assessment that's the same as the mainstream test - only different.

If Maryland can pull it off, says Cloutier, "it will be like doing this well on test X and this well on test Y, and the result of both is Z."

Palestinians show struggle to Hopkins, Goucher

In her testimony before the 9/11 commission Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said only an educated population will forge peace in the Middle East.

The day before, a pair of Palestinian college students made stops at the Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, where they showed photographs and a videotape of young Israeli soldiers bulldozing a road to their university, lobbing tear gas at students and firing over their heads as they retreated.

Yasser Darwish and Reem Wahdan, of Birzeit University on the West Bank, said the Israeli harassment had made going to classes a day-to-day struggle. Even on days when the 6,300- student school is able to conduct classes, students are forced to wait in long lines at Israeli checkpoints, said Darwish.

"There is no reason to use violence against us," said an emotional Wahdan. "We only want to go to school."

The two are on a national tour that includes stops at Princeton, Harvard and Smith. They were invited by pro-Palestinian groups to the colleges, which were not sponsors.

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