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Testing How Students Think


This week Maryland students are taking part in the secondannual administration of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. These tests represent a change in direction for Maryland schools toward higher-level problem solving and critical thinking. The new assessments measure performance according to some tough expectations for the year 2000.

Over the past few decades, short-answer assessments have short-changed American students, helping to create the illusion that a storehouse of trivia is the most valuable asset for the American student. However, teachers who work daily with students have recognized, along with American businesses, that the measure of school success is rooted in a student's ability to think.

American workers need to know fundamental operations such as reading, writing, mathematics and citizenship. Maryland's functional testing program has, for a decade, ensured that graduates could perform at least at a functional level. It is time to go beyond those basic skills. Businesses want American workers to understand how to apply those basic skills to complex problem situations in the work place. They tell us that American workers would be more competitive and productive if they could attack difficult problems and arrive at creative solutions.

Maryland's new assessments, at grades 3, 5 and 8, test reading, writing, language arts and mathematics. This month, two new assessments, in social studies and science, will be added. Eventually, a grade 11 assessment, to be piloted with 1,000 high school students this spring, will complete the testing program. Not far behind Maryland, both national and commercial testing programs are coming on line with high-level thinking assessments of their own.

Maryland's new testing program is not only forward-thinking in its philosophy, it is anchored on what we are told that students should be able to do by the year 2000. Not only does it produce fairly simple results summaries for school accountability, it develops a complex data base of performance information for school improvement. This data base is linked to specific higher-order thinking outcomes expected of students.

It is this data base that is the real story. Teachers, administrators and members of the community will now have much more information than ever before on student performance. They will be able to come together and plan with precision for improvement.

This change will not be easy. Administering the new assessments and releasing the results will provide the basis for a new dialogue on school reform. Maryland state and local school systems will now need to train school staffs and community members on how to read the data and on how to plan for success. This process has the potential to identify in explicit terms what is wrong with schools and what is right, forming the basis for substantive change.

With MSPAP data, we see an exciting chain of events beginning. Performance data will join a host of other information already available in Maryland schools to fuel school-improvement efforts. well trained teaching corps and an informed public will create the momentum for school reform together.

Better schools in Maryland will depend on partnership, cooperation and vision. We challenge the citizens of this state to get involved. Our future depends on it. We must no longer bemoan test results. We must look to the future and plan together for all of Maryland's 1,200 public schools to be Schools for Success. We should use test data to help us reach our goals and not just complain that we have not arrived at our destination yet.

School improvement requires a significant level of involvement and investment, while Maryland families and businesses are faced with stiff competition for their time and resources. At the minimum, citizens need to stay informed, looking beyond headlines for the full story on test scores and school news. Marylanders should open a dialogue with teachers, principals and community leaders. When they read about test results, they should ask questions -- read beyond the charts that compare schools. They should become part of a visionary movement that promises to turn Maryland schools upside down with everyone the winner -- teachers, students, the community . . . our future.

Nancy Grasmick is state superintendent of schools.

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