Carrying meter sticks, double convex lenses and index cards, small groups of students bustle in and out of their classroom, talking, moving books, plants and other objects in front of windows and taking notes.
The activity seems disorganized, but the teacher watches silently from the doorway.
These kids aren't goofing off. This is a test.
And on the second day of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, these students are conducting an experiment as part of the process.
This is the second year Maryland's third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students are taking the exam.
It's supposed to indicate how well they can apply what they've learned in school to a variety of problems and questions -- and to evaluate school performance against academic standards that the state hopes to achieve by the year 2000.
Last year's test, the results of which were released in March, found 75 percent of Maryland students scoring at the two lowest levels.
Overall, fewer than 2 percent of the students scored at Level 1 -- the highest of five levels of proficiency. About 40 percent scored at Level 5, the lowest level, which is considered unacceptable. Another 35 percent scored at Level 4, the next lowest.
Children answer questions in math, social studies, science and writing and in language usage.
But these are not the traditional multiple choice exercises.
"This test asks students to do more than just fill in answers on an answer sheet," says Richard E. Bavaria, Baltimore County schools spokesman.
"They are asked to spend a certain amount of time talking about the problem . . . and coming to a consensus. The tests require a certain amount of interaction as well as individual thinking -- the way people solve problems in real life."
"This is like nothing anyone has done before," says Howard Rones, an eighth-grade math teacher at Catonsville Middle School.
"All other [standardized] tests are [multiple choice], and that's the lowest level of thinking -- recognition. These tests are really testing the highest level of thinking -- developing conclusions, making analogies, expressing opinions, extrapolating data."
Not only is the format different, but preparing to give the test is also a dramatically different experience for teachers and administrators.
Tens of thousands of dollars in state grants and school administration funds have been spent on special supplies for the tests.
And materials such as paper napkins, swizzle sticks, plastic spoons and cups for experiments that are part of the exam were donated by the Southland and McDonald's corporations.
Teachers, administrators and parents put in hours as well, preparing carts to hold the supplies that students need each day.
The tests are given to 160,000 students across the state.
This week, fifth- and eighth-grade students have been taking them two hours a day. Next week, third-grade students will be tested.
"I don't like it," says Lindsey Denton, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Catonsville Middle. "You have to sit for three periods straight, and it's hard."
"It's not harder, it's just longer," says Jessica Maung, 13.
"There's a lot of writing and you have to explain how you got an answer."
After the first day of testing, Deatrus Toler, 14, didn't mince words.
"I'm tired of it already," she said.
Innovative format and lofty academic goals aside, a test is still a test, kids say. And while their opinions about its difficulty vary, nearly all the youngsters agreed on one thing -- it's boring.
A sampling of questions and activities
Following are sample questions and activities from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program for eighth-grade students:
Most people like to watch high-speed car chases in movies. The more collision, the more cars flying through the air and the more skids, flips and roll-overs . . . the better the chase! Believe it or not, throughout the chase sequence each car behaves according to the laws of motion.
You will have a chance to explore some of the variables that affect the motion of objects as well as what happens when objects collide. Working in groups, you are going to make observations and predictions and collect and statistically analyze data. Working individually, you will review your findings from each separate activity and summarize your results.
You are provided a track and vehicles A, B and C from Activity 1 to use in this investigation. Elevate one end of the track to a height so that the rolling car remains within the test area. Each car will be released from the same starting point and allowed to roll undisturbed until it stops. You will collect data with the starting point elevated to three different heights.
Social Studies/Reading/Writing/Language Usage
You have read and thought about how Indian peoples used the buffalo for certain needs and wants, and how other people used the buffalo for their needs and wants.
Everyone in every period of history has had needs and wants that were important. You, too, have needs and wants which are important to you. Take two minutes to make a list of the five most important needs in your life. Write your list on your paper.
Now, share your list with your partner. Listen carefully to what your partner has to say and note how your partner's needs and wants are similar to or different from yours.
Students are asked to read an article titled, "The Potomac River 'Oyster War.' " Then they are asked to perform related tasks, for example: "There are other conflicts over scarce resources in the world. Write a paragraph or develop a graphic organizer/flow chart to compare the conflict over the oysters to another conflict over a scarce natural resource other than the buffalo."