Test leaves grown-ups dazed and confused


Two school spokeswomen, a publications manager at the State Department of Education, and two reporters were suckered . . . ah, volunteered yesterday to take the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test.

All five knew they were in trouble when they couldn't get the calculators out of their covers. But things soon picked up, and went down, and then picked up again.

Since the questions answered by the five test-takers -- who have agreed they do not want their results released, ever -- are questions being answered by eighth-grade students this year, specifics cannot be reported.

But like some students and teachers currently taking the test, the group of five sometimes found the questions ambiguous and subject to two or more interpretations.

Adam Milam, coordinator of testing for county schools, said he had received a few calls from teachers not clear on the meaning of questions, or on directions included in the test.

Teachers are not allowed to give students much, if any, clarification. But students are given some credit if they give an incorrect answer but do a good job of explaining how they arrived at that wrong answer.

The question the five test-takers had difficulty with was not one students or teachers have had problems understanding. This reporter cannot speak for her compatriots, but either the five found a flaw in the test, or they made the question more complicated than it really was.

The MSPAP has been both praised and vilified by teachers, parent and students. Most applaud the test's intentions, but decry the lack of state money to achieve its goals.

A variety of supplies are needed to perform the lab, and the tests take a minimum of 1 hour, 45 minutes out of the day. Last year, the test took two weeks to administer.

Results from last year's MSPAP show students did not score well. Most scored in levels three and four, with one being the highest and five the lowest.

Unlike standardized tests that require students to memorize information, the performance test attempts to mirror real-life situations.

"I think the test is very challenging," said Milam, who administered yesterday's test. "In spite of the problems, this is still the way to go."

The five test-takers all confessed mathematics was not their strong suit. So they were given a math and science problem to solve.

The mathematics problem involved some group work. County students taking the MSPAP also have a chance to work in groups of four before answering questions individually. While yesterday's group enjoyed working together, they found it provided no advantage over working alone.

The science portion of the MSPAP seemed to spark more group interest. It was much more fun and a lot easier. Milam said students, too, seem to be enjoying the science experiments and participating in the group activities.

Overall, the MSPAP does not seem as tedious as the old-style standardized tests. And it does require the school system's buzzword for the 1990s: critical thinking. Even the math portion of the test requires a great deal of writing, since students must explain how they arrived at their answers.

Questions on the exam are supposed to be based upon what students are actually learning in school.

The five test-takers were more than happy when the test was over. No more cries of "Do we get a smoking break?" or "Oh, God; oh, God" at the sight of the phrase, "Write an equation."

But one test-taker seemed to sum up the feelings of the entire group.

"I really don't miss school."

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