Despite the loss of $10.2 million in state money from its current budget, the county school system is being told to supply students with an exhaustive list of materials for the state's functional tests.
And school officials are less than pleased with the state's request.
"We don't have any choice," said Superintendent Larry L. Lorton. "We are mandated to give this test.
"This Maryland reform movementis being shoved down our throats without any additional funding fromthe state to the local levels," Lorton said.
"What once held suchpromise is being eroded. You can't give those tests without the equipment. And the only way to get the equipment is at the expense of other programs."
On Jan. 16, the state sent a memorandum listing materials needed for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The 13-page memorandum requests that schools provide each test-taker with items including a calculator, a protractor, a compass, a paper towel roll and a pair of goggles. Also, schools should provide a balance for every two test-takers, the memo says.
School officials estimate that about 15,000 students in third, fifth and eighth grades will take the test during a period of about one to two weeks.
"I for one am flabbergasted at the extent of the list," said Ken Nichols, who manages the county budget for equipment requests. "We don't know how we'll be able to buy all of this equipment. We don't even know whatthe bottom-line price will be."
Nichols said the school system may have to ask the business community for donations to purchase the equipment, or make an appeal to the state in hopes of having the numberof items reduced.
The memorandum also requests such items as rulers, pencils, scissors, tape, glue, dictionaries, thermometers, cylinders and beakers. School officials said they have some of the equipment. However, they do not have enough equipment to test all their students, nor money to buy more.
"I like to use the analogy of a dinnerparty," said Thomas Rhoades, MSPAP coordinator for the county schools. "Suppose you've invited a few people over for dinner. You have stainless steel flatware for six to eight. You have dishes for six to eight.
"Suddenly, 30 to 40 people show up for dinner at your house. You can't borrow any dishes from your neighbors because 30 to 40 people also showed up at their houses, and they don't have enough to go around. We're facing the same problem.
"Indeed we have balances," Rhoades continued. "But we don't have a thousand balances. Indeed we have beakers. But we don't have a thousand beakers. Nor would anyone with any common sense. No one buys supplies for 15,000 people, especially not things we're not going to use again."
However, state officials said much of the equipment requested is already in the schools, and the equipment will not be used by every student at the same time.
"There are not highly sophisticated or expensive materials on thelist," said state spokesman Ronald Peiffer. "For example, Styrofoam cups are on the list.
"We recognize some materials have to be managed. But the program was designed so there wouldn't be a run on equipment. We recognize the restrictive budget some schools are operating under, but we think all the schools should be able to get the items."
The MSPAP has come under fire from parents and teachers who question its reliability. There have been complaints that students miss too much instructional time while taking the test, which last year ran more than a week in many jurisdictions.
Last year's test focused on reading and math. This year's test will focus on social studies andscience and require students to participate in experiments. Rhoades said the logistics of setting up such an exam will be nearly impossible to manage.
"Last year, most teachers did not know what their kids would be doing until the morning of the test," Rhoades said. "Now,we're going to need time to set up, lots of time."
Even if the school system is able to find a supplier to provide the schools with all the equipment by May, Rhodes said, the problem of how to pay for itremains.
In addition, Rhoades said, there may be cases where the test will have to be administered to a student who may need an interpreter because of a hearing impairment, or a student who may need someone to operate the balance and beakers because of a physical handicap.
"It's a real nightmare," Rhoades said. "It's well-intentioned. The difficulty is we simply cannot do the same experiment at 122 schools, for 15,000 students, at the same time."