Despite teachers' protests, new tests to go ahead


The Maryland State Teachers Association wants the state to cancel its ambitious new testing program that begins Monday, saying that it's too much too soon and has created "chaos in the classroom."

MSTA President Jane R. Stern said the new Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, a linchpin of Maryland's reform efforts, tests children for material that they have not been taught, consumes too much classroom teaching time, has diverted money from school supply budgets and has been poorly planned.

"We've been letting the state board know that we think this is much too fast and ill-planned and we think they ought to slow down and do it right," Ms. Stern said, adding that the tests should be delayed a year.

State school board President Robert C. Embry Jr. and state school Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling said the test will go on as planned, starting Monday and continuing for two weeks as 160,000 third-, fifth- and eighth-graders submit to a total of nine hours of reading, writing and math testing per grade.

"I have been in a lot of schools around the state, and I have not seen chaos," Dr. Shilling said. "Teachers are uneasy, they don't know what's going to be on the test, and I think that's natural when you have a new test."

"Whenever something new is done, more time could always be taken," Mr. Embry said. "But nobody is going to be held accountable or punished or lose any pay or anything because of the result of this test. . . . We need to see how it works and what results we get back."

The new test is a so-called Criterion-Referenced Test (CRT), which measures how students do in relation to predetermined "outcomes" -- or skills that the state has decided they should possess. In the past, Maryland has used the California Achievement Test, which measured students against a "norm" set by an arbitrary group of students.

The state adopted a set of outcomes -- deliberately aiming for skills that outstrip current school performance -- last year. The new tests were built by state educators and a team of 216 teachers.

"What they're doing is setting the children up for failure, setting the teachers up for failure -- just in terms of the standards," said Christine Haggett, president of the Harford County Education Association. "I think that schools are going to come out looking less effective than they are."

Ms. Stern said the test has diverted money from strained local budgets to pay for instructional aids -- such as calculators -- that are needed for the test. Baltimore County, for example, spent about $15,000 to supplement its materials.

The poorer Baltimore schools spent a total of $211,352. -- on 24,786 calculators (one for each child being tested), rulers, scratch paper, colored pencils, protractors, graph paper, dictionaries, compasses, tape and No. 2 pencils, said school spokesman Douglas J. Neilson.

But Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said it was money well spent. "I'm very glad to see that our system is actually spending money on things like that," Ms. Dandridge said. Though city teachers also have misgivings about the test, she said the union is adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"If it's looked at as no-fault, to try to get some idea of how children are going to respond to this new testing, then it's fine," she said. "I think going from the CAT test to the criterion testing system and changing the curriculum so that we measure outcomes is a far better way of doing it."

Dr. Shilling said much of the material covered in the new tests is supposed to be taught under existing state curriculum guidelines that are at least 3 years old. But he added that instructional strategies will need to change.

"I hope in fact we have been teaching children to solve problems and think critically," he said. "And that's what this test is designed to find out."

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