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Latest tests are useless, teachers say State officials defend them, picture of nude bar and all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Maryland State Teachers Association said yesterday that the state's latest effort to measure youngsters' performance in school is so flawed and full of errors that the results should be thrown out.

Some of the questions -- including one for fifth-graders that involved a picture of a nude bar -- are downright offensive, the teachers argued.

But state officials defended the innovative testing program, which is designed to measure how well children apply what they've learned in school to real-life problems.

While they promised to look at the teachers' complaints, the officials said they would be unlikely to discard the results of the exams, which children in third, fifth and eighth grades are finishing now.

"The problems involved in this year's test are so severe that there's no way to score them," MSTA president Jane Stern said at a news conference in Annapolis.

She said she had received numerous calls from across the state complaining of ambiguous questions, insufficient materials and inappropriate subject matter for students at various grade levels.

Thomas J. Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said the test itself contains so many errors that it can't be used to assess what students are learning.

Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the state will look into the complaints but defended the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The program spreads 8 3/4 hours of testing over a week of school. Most schools have just finished this year's exams.

"For all the negative things heard this morning, we heard a number of positive things from classroom teachers," Mr. Peiffer said. "We've made significant inroads in instruction and testing these past two years, and we're really encouraged to keep moving forward."

While teachers and administrators elsewhere in the metropolitan area expressed varying degrees of concern about the testing program, many were concerned about a question that gives fifth-graders a chance to discuss the constitutionality of nude dancing.

Youngsters read a few sentences about the First Amendment. Then they're asked to view three pictures. One shows a young woman carrying a boom box. The second shows a man shouting to a crowd. The third shows a barker inviting people into a building advertising "Nude Dancing." It also contains the silhouette of a woman. Children get to pick the picture they'll write about.

"Last week I started receiving calls from teachers in the [Anne Arundel County] system," Mr. Paolino said. "Initially the concerns were about the way questions were asked. But when fifth-grade teachers who were previewing the MSPAP tests discovered an item that one might see on The Block but never in an elementary school classroom, they didn't know what to do."

Many teachers called the Department of Educa-tion and were told to administer the test as they had received it.

Mr. Peiffer defended the illustration, saying many students simply overlooked the picture and chose to work with the two alternative drawings.

However, Mr. Paolino said teachers were outraged that the question was included in the test and that they were expected to present it to fifth-grade students.

"The inclusion of an item depicting a woman on display for public viewing on a fifth-grade test was absolutely inappropriate," Mr. Paolino said.

"It was the kind of thing that if a teacher had been foolish enough to use in a fifth-grade classroom, he or she would probably face disciplinary action."

Ed Veit, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, agreed with the association's complaints, saying that the question and picture contradict Baltimore County's Values in Education program.

"I'm not a prude, but I'd be interested to know if anyone from the state department took this test," Mr Veit said.

Mr. Peiffer said the test had been "evaluated and reviewed" by resource and classroom teachers as well as central office supervisors. But, during the press conference, Mrs. Stern said -- one of the main problems with the test is that it was designed by administrators who have little contact with students.

In Baltimore City, Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she was unaware of any specific complaints about the test. She said teachers' and administrators' concerns have been about how the state plans to

evaluate the test, and how the evaluations will be used.

"Eventually these tests will be used to see if the schools are doing their job," she said. "Unless you make some changes in the disparity of funds [between the city and suburban counties], the test is meaningless."

The test program was piloted in the state's 24 school systems for the first time last May. It received national attention because it tried to move away from memorization and multiple-choice questions in favor of measuring how well students perform real-life activities.

But it was criticized by many who saw no clear criteria for evaluating the results, and no explanation from the state as to how the evaluations would be used. Teachers and administrators said the test frequently took far more time to administer than the state predicted.

Mrs. Stern said the nude dancing item was just one of many problems. For example, she said, students were asked to measure soil in milliliters when the correct way to measure soil is in grams. A milliliter is a unit of volume, while a gram is a unit of weight or mass.

One questions asked third-graders to compare the Pledge of Allegiance with prayer in school. Another asked those same third-graders to analyze human, natural and financial resources of two fictional countries.

"If you could do that in the third grade you probably wouldn't have to go to school anymore," Mrs. Stern said.

In Howard County, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said he had not heard complaints about the nude dancing item. His teachers and administrators were concerned that the test took too long to administer and contained errors.

For example, Mr. Hickey said he had been told one an item on a test included a notice at the bottom of a page directing students, "Stop. Do not go any further." Students who obeyed the instruction missed three additional pages of problems.

Mr. Hickey said that while he has some concerns about the data, he won't go as far as advocating the results be thrown out.

Carroll County fifth-grade teacher Betty Smith said that while she has a few questions about the test, the results could still be useful.

"I've spent the last four mornings on this -- something has to come out of it," said Ms. Smith, who teaches at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster. "All of the time the children have spent on these, it would be a shame to throw them out."

Richard E. Bavaria, spokesman for Baltimore County public schools, said there have been some problems, but no one is advocating that the results be thrown out.

"The test needs to be refined, there's no question about it," he said. "But the test is a sound test. It asks students to do everything from remember, to think, to form conclusions . . . and we all have to remember that the goals of the test are for the year 2000. And we will reach those goals."

Nancy Jane Adams, spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County schools, said acting Superintendent C. Berry Carter II and school board members would make no official statement about the complaints or the request to have the test results thrown out.

Harford County teachers support the goals of the performance test, but believe the school system moved too quickly to put it in place, said Christine Haggett, president of the Harford County Education Association.

"We've kind of put the cart before the horse on this one," she said. "Now we're trying to play catch-up."

While many teachers said they didn't have enough materials to perform some of the tasks in the test, Howard County was in a particular bind, according to James Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association.

"Eighth-grade teachers are complaining about science exams that require the use of windows," Mr. Swab said. "Many schools in Howard County are open-space schools. We don't have windows and the state department didn't send any windows."

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