State reworking performance test after complaints Better instructions, more time expected


Responding to a deluge of complaints, the state is revamping its school performance test to make it less confusing to students and less controversial to their parents.

When they are through with the 1993 version, state officials hope they will have a test that gives students clear instructions and enough time to get the work finished.

They also hope to have eliminated sensitive questions, such as the 1992 essay that asked students to decide if nude dancing is constitutionally protected as free speech.

And for the first time since the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program began, next year's version of the exam will be "field tested" on New York City and Philadelphia students to gauge the fairness of the time limits.

The moves to improve the test were announced yesterday at Baltimore County Sudbrook Center, where some 400 teachers and state officials had gathered to work on making sure the test is appropriate for the third-, fifth- and eighth-graders who take it.

"We now think we have cut all we need to cut from the test," said Assistant State Superintendent Robert Gabrys, who said 15 of the 100 tasks in the 1992 test were found to be faulty.

Maryland's 24 school districts first administered the nine-hour assessment program over eight days in May 1991, asking students to apply classroom skills in tasks involving language, mathematics, science and social studies. Students wrote essays, charted graphs and, beginning with the May 1992 tests, conducted laboratory experiments.

In 1991, while one Baltimore County elementary school objected to the test, the first round went smoothly. But last year, there were widespread complaints about the test, as students failed to finish large portions, or could not understand the instructions.

Anne Arundel County officials threatened not to administer it again. The Maryland State Teachers Association asked that the results be thrown out.

Eight hundred teachers sent back surveys to the state when asked their opinions of the 1992 test. Gail Lee, a science teacher at Arundel Middle School, was one of about 30 who returned detailed criticisms.

"I filled up pages and pages," said the eighth-grade teacher, whose students were frustrated by not having time for sections they knew they could perform well on.

Some specific glitches included asking students to paste animal cut-outs on a piece of paper that was too small. Another task asked students to roll a ball or cart down a ramp they constructed, but allowed only 15 minutes for what proved to be a 35-minute job. Or the test instructed students to look out a window, an impossibility in many Maryland classrooms.

Perhaps the most infamous question centered on the First Amendment. One-third of the state's 60,000 fifth-graders had to write about freedom of speech, choosing from pictures of a woman with a boom box, a student protester, and a carnival barker urging people to come see a nude dancer, represented by a silhouette.

Dr. Gabrys said only 13 percent of the students chose to write about nude dancing and only one essay seemed flippant. Another student, whose teacher had pasted paper over the woman's body parts, lifted the flap and wrote: "When are they going to stop treating us like babies?"

The State Department of Education declined to discard the 1992 scores, although it did agree to eliminate some parts of the test before evaluating them. Its officials then asked teachers, parents and "non-educators" how to improve the tests.

"This has been a major collaboration with all the local school systems," Dr. Gabrys said. "They would like us to do it better. When a standardized test fails, the reaction usually is 'Get rid of it.' This one, everyone's interested in helping us fix it."

"And since I've been here, I've seen every one of those issues addressed. I liked that," Ms. Lee said yesterday.

The idea of the test is to avoid the traditional multiple-choice and short-answer tests, which asked only that students achieve basic competency in a few areas. CTB MacMillan/McGraw Hill helped state testing specialists develop the assessment program at a cost of $1.7 million.

The early tests are to be used to set a statewide goal that schools must reach by the year 2000. Scores, on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the highest, are released on a school-by-school basis. Students do not receive individual assessments.

When the state released the 1991 results in March 1992, almost 70 percent of the students scored at the two lowest levels.

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