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Redesigned tests pass expectations on measuring of thinking skills


They wanted me to take The Test. This was the dreaded Test, the new and experimental test, the one that is supposed to make education reform happen in Maryland.

It was the same test that Maryland's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders will start taking next week -- except they get to prepare for it.

I took The Test, and I may have even passed it. I hope so, since it was intended to measure what fifth-graders are supposed to know. I can't tell you what was on the test because they made me and every other person in the room sign a blue sheet promising to keep quiet -- on pain of legal action.

I can tell you, however, that I had to think my way through each and every question.

That's exactly what the designers of The Test, officially called the Maryland State Performance Program, hope for. State educators and 216 teachers around the state have worked for more than a year developing The Test, which substitutes open-ended questions and problems for the standard multiple choice format.

Unlike the California Achievement Test, which traditionally has been used in this state and others, it measures students not against a predetermined "norm," but against a set of outcomes adopted by the state -- outcomes that describe what children should know.

Yesterday, the state department of education rounded up about 45 reporters and public information officers from around the state. We were split into three groups and given pencils, calculators, scratch paper and one dictionary per group.

"We're going to give you a version of our new test that we're giving the kids two weeks from now," said Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent of schools, smiling broadly. "What we'll be able to tell you at the end of all this is how well public information officers and reporters do on this test.

"Then we'll be able to tell you how The Sun paper does, how the Hagerstown Mail does, how the public information director in Queen Anne's County does. . ."

This turned out to be a joke. In point of fact, nobody scored the test booklets at the end of the 3 1/2 -hour session. It was exactly the kind of "no-fault" testing that state superintendents have been asking for their students.

But we didn't know this at the time. We were apprehensive. We were not quite sure that our performance would justify our adult status. There were nervous jokes. "I hope there's no math," someone muttered.

Then we got to grapple with an hour's worth of questions from the fifth-grade test that will be given to students across the state beginning next Monday.

There were lots of frowning and tense faces as people punched out numbers on calculators, scribbled on scratch paper and did some rapid erasing in their test booklets.

Nobody used the dictionary. It was hard to keep track of all the directions. The clock seemed to be ticking faster than usual. I got off on the wrong foot, pulling out the math booklet when I was supposed to be working on the language section.

At the end, I discovered that I had gotten the correct answer to the math problem, but had answered too "globally" to at least one question about an article we had read. The answer I gave, scoring expert Gail Goldberg explained, did not adequately "extend" the information implied in the article.

That's the kind of thing that can happen to someone who takes this test. There isn't one right answer. It isn't as if someone asks you: If you build a restaurant size X in a lot size Y, how much land do you have left over?

The sample question in the eighth-grade math test asks what kind of restaurant you will build, asks you to construct a survey to determine the answer, then instructs you to create three tables and three charts displaying your results.

The sample Reading/Writing question doesn't ask you: why did the hero in the story you just read freeze to death? It asks you to write him a letter telling him some things he might have done differently to avoid freezing.

Mimicking an actual lesson, it asks the examiner to discuss with students some words that come to mind when the students hear the word "hypothermia."

That's the kind of thing you do on this test. It has to do with real skills that have connections with the real world. It is a test that attempts to elicit and measure that complicated process that educators like to call "higher-order thinking skills."

I am glad that Dr. Shilling and his staff chose a fifth-grade test for yesterday's demonstration -- rather than an eighth-grade test or the forthcoming 11th-grade tests.

Anything else would have been too demanding -- too much like the real world.

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