Across Maryland, the palms get sweaty. Only a few weeks to go! A few weeks until the next round of tests known by thousands of educators and parents from Oakland to Pocomoke City as "Mizpap."
Mizpap is a rough acronym for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), the linchpin of which is the battery of "higher-order thinking skills" tests to be administered to the third, fifth and eighth grades in mid-May.
Never has a single group of tests produced so much perspiration in Maryland education circles. Districts that have done well in the MSPAP brag about their scores and urge students to greater accomplishment. Proof flies in the congratulatory banner hanging outside Howard County school headquarters in Ellicott City.
Howard finished first on the MSPAP last year and fully intends to repeat. Since the MSPAP tests measure school achievement, not individual success, Howard has attempted to make MSPAP a matter of school pride. "We tell them it's not an individual test for you, but rather a test designed for school improvement," says Leslie Bartnick, supervisor of testing. "We try to drum up school spirit with Mizpap."
Some principals even throw parties after the tests are completed.
Educators play down the competitive aspects of the tests, but inquiring minds want to know how and why Howard, Frederick and Carroll, for example, did so well, and Baltimore City did so poorly.
The poor performers vow to do better. Baltimore City uniquely knows what happens with poor results; five of its schools have been designated for shake-up by the state Education Department over the past two years.
Having failed to meet any of the MSPAP testing standards last year, city schools are in red alert as the May dates approach. The practice test booklets arrived in city elementary schools last week. In addition, the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) will be administered next month, so that testing mania is the order of the day.
Most schools have daily "test awareness" activities, practice tests, tutoring, after-school activities, even homework designed to help students understand the tests and how to take them. Some districts involve parents in MSPAP preparation, and Howard makes sure that the students who will be grouped during the testing tasks have become comfortable working with one another.
A typical MSPAP question isn't a question at all; it's a task in which three or four students engage. They might perform a simple scientific experiment, make predictions beforehand on the results of the experiment, write up individual evaluations and draw a bar chart showing the results.
MSPAP is part of the state's effort to get away from rote learning and teach children to apply their knowledge and skills in real-life situations. "MSPAP includes the basics, but it goes well beyond the basics," says Nancy Mann, assistant superintendent for instruction in Anne Arundel County.
The Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills exemplify the old-fashioned multiple-choice tests that are "normed" against a national sample of test-takers. They require a much different set of test-taking skills -- students have to know how to eliminate the bad answers, for example, and they must know rudimentary test-taking skills such as filling in the bubble (but not overfilling it, lest the computer not be able to read the test). A typical standardized test item might present four possible solutions for this problem: "Rita can pull the oars of a rowboat 35 times a minute. What is the number of times she can pull the oars in 30 minutes?" Fill in the bubble for the right answer.
The CTBS and MSPAP tests are both crucial to Baltimore schools, but most of the suburban districts have come as close as they'll come to mastering the former over many years of standardized testing. Not so Baltimore City, where results on the CTBS will play a critical role in the fate of the nine for-profit Tesseract schools, especially now that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says he wants to tie the Tesseract contract to school performance.
Thus, city teachers and principals face a daunting task over the next few weeks: teach one set of skills to take the CTBS and another to take the MSPAP only a few days later. (That there are attributes to a "good" school other than good test scores and attendance does not seem to have entered the minds of many outside observers and critics.)
The Tesseract schools devote part of each day to "test awareness" training and a longer period of intense training one day a week.
One city administrator admitted that Baltimore "fumbled the ball" when it became obvious at the turn of the 1990s that MSPAP would be the order of the day in Maryland schools. While such districts as Anne Arundel and Howard altered their curriculum to make it jibe with MSPAP -- instead of the other way around -- Baltimore concentrated on the standardized tests. And just as the city is making some progress on the CTBS -- scores are up citywide -- the state is about to discard it and move to a more sophisticated instrument.
Bernadette Key, who runs the computer labs at Rodman Elementary School, a Tesseract school in West Baltimore, believes that the tests city children take "badly need to be revised. I've seen it for 20 years, and it hasn't changed. These kids get so frustrated taking the tests because they don't bear any relevance to their lives. They just give up.
"I wish they'd change the test or let somebody come in and create a test designed for our children."
Awash in applications
Mammas still want their babies to grow up to be doctors.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine has 5,000 applications for 145 slots this fall. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine reports some 4,000 applications for 120 slots. George Washington University's medical school in Washington reports 12,000 applicants for 150 openings.