MATCHING WITS WITH MD. 5TH-GRADERS Seven adults endure statewide test and win a deeper understanding


They went to bed early the night before. They remembered to eat breakfast. A few even cut up before the big test, joking to slice away at their tension.

Two hours and many sighs later, the seven adults who submitted yesterday to Maryland's critical-thinking exam for fifth-graders earned a payoff for their anxiety. They called it understanding.

Parents and teachers, a principal, a city councilman, an executive, a news editor -- all penned answers to questions from the test used to judge the quality of Maryland schools and the progress of education reform.

As the timekeeper prodded, they grimaced. They scratched their heads. And once, when their science hypothesis proved correct, their relief resounded in the Maryland Department of Education conference room as a long, loud "ahhhh."

At the request of The Sun, they sought insights into contemporary education reform by completing tasks from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test, which thousands of students are taking this week. The tests are different from those parents are used to -- they're designed to test thinking, rather than knowledge of facts, and call for some work in groups.

How'd the test-takers do? Understand up front that they didn't earn scores because they took only a fraction of a five-day exam -- and used questions from the 1992 and 1993 tests so as to protect the security of the test that children are taking right now.

But did they pass?

They learned, they said, that mastering knowledge today means a lot more than storing it up in one's head.

The test-takers at Table Two stared for a few seconds at instructions for a science experiment: Build a hydrometer, a device to measure the differences in samples of fresh and salty water. None was a scientist -- and Maryland fifth-graders aren't either, of course. All had started the exercise as strangers, as do many students when the time comes for group tasks.

Hydrometer. The word alone seemed intimidating to some members of the group: James R. Wolgamott, principal of Essex Elementary School in Baltimore County; Patricia Pender, mother of two students at Furman Templeton Elementary in Baltimore (one of three schools designated this year for reform because of low test scores); Kathy Yealdhall, PTO president at Gardenville Elementary in Baltimore; M. William Salganik, education editor of The Sun.

Mr. Wolgamott reached for a drinking straw, one of the hydrometer parts provided by the test coordinator. Following a sketch and written directions, group members snipped a short piece of the clear straw, plugged its end with a lump of clay and dropped in two BBs.

They plopped the simple device into a clear glass of fresh water -- clay end down. Then they moved it to the salt water. In both glasses, the straw floated.

In test booklets, they drew what they saw and labeled the parts of the picture.

Wide open spaces

After that, there were no multiple-choice questions. No fill-in-the-bubble score sheets. Only the empty, wide spaces between black lines, waiting for diagrams and written answers.

Time to compare observations.

"What's the depth of the water?" Mr. Wolgamott asked in the hushed tone the test-takers shared. They measured with a ruler, then moved the straw to the other glass.

"It doesn't look that different," said Ms. Yealdhall, leaning so close her chin nearly touched the table.

As the time ticked away, a silent anxiety mounted, and the group members began to bond. They debated the best way to compare what they saw: Measure the length of straw extending above the water? The distance from the bottom of the glass to the bottom of the straw? The space between the water surface and the top of the glass?

Holding the ruler alongside the cup wasn't helping: They were trying to see the difference in fractions of an inch, and it seemed so very slight. They switched to centimeters -- and still couldn't see much difference.

"We're in trouble," Mr. Salganik said.

L A minute later, Ms. Yealdhall's spirits buoyed with an idea.

"I think we ought to measure what's showing out of the water," she said. "If you were going to measure it in the Chesapeake Bay, you wouldn't measure all the way to the bottom. Not if you're on a boat, you wouldn't do that."

Then she suggested a course of action: Put the ruler marks on the hydrometer. Mr. Salganik performed the operation, marking off centimeters along the straw. Each test-taker recorded the measurements:

In the salt water, 5 centimeters of straw sat below the water's surface. In the fresh, 5 1/2 centimeters sat below the water's surface.

Next question: Predict how the hydrometer might float in a cup in which are mixed equal parts fresh water and salt water. Quietly, each recorded his prediction -- and the reasons supporting it.

"Ahhhhhhhh," they piped up in unison when the hydrometer bobbed to a stop with 5 1/4 centimeters of straw below the surface of the mixture.

It took them way too long to complete the tasks: about an hour. If it had been a real test, they would have had 42 minutes to complete those and three related questions.

They would learn from Gail Goldberg, a state assessment specialist, that they could have measured the hydrometer's position by any of the methods they had suggested -- and many they hadn't considered. Any would have produced right answers.

And it didn't matter whether they spelled words right or wrong in their notations; spelling wasn't scored on this test, although it counts on some others. Demonstrating the thought process underlying their written answers -- by including supporting evidence for their predictions, for example -- was what mattered.

Observers suggested that adults might be forgiven for being a little slower than children during the collaboration: They're more polite, perhaps. More sensitive to each other's potential embarrassment. And maybe more methodical, more tentative.

"They are less willing to take risks," said Wayne Walbrecher, who had just finished his social studies test across the room. A vice president with Fidelity and Deposit Co. of Maryland, Mr. Walbrecher is active in the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education.

Warming up

Over at Table One, Mr. Walbrecher and two others had been asked to warm up for their test by brainstorming a list of jobs teens do today.

"Cutting grass," volunteered Cheryl Bost, a fourth-grade teacher and MSPAP test proctor at Mars Estates Elementary School in Baltimore County.

"Selling newspapers," said Carl Stokes, a Baltimore city councilman and chairman of the council's education committee.

Next, they read "A Letter to Hannah," a letter written in 1840 by a 15-year-old New England girl who helped support her family by ** working in a mill. It details her pride at being able to help out.

They read also, "Mill Children," a short textbook-style narrative about child labor from the 1800s to 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

They looked at a map and identified some geographic features of mill country -- rivers and waterfalls, for example. They pinpointed where on the map they might build a mill, and explained why. And they answered questions that required they form and support a thesis.

The answers drafted by the adults varied broadly -- in part, because the questions sought their feelings and their opinions, bolstered by the facts and ideas presented in the stories.

"Circle the word below which is closest to how you felt after reading 'Mill Children.' Use information from the text and your personal experience to explain your answer."

The choices given were: angry, confused, fortunate, sad or hopeful.

It was here that the writers bogged down.

"I was trying to decide whether to answer as an adult might or as a fifth-grader might," said Mr. Stokes afterward. Some said they also wrestled with their feelings: What if none of the options fit?

An answer of "none of the above," followed by a cogent description of how they did feel -- supported by the text and personal experience -- would have been a perfect-score answer, Ms. Goldberg said.

Mr. Stokes circled "fortunate," compared their experience with his, of being able to go to school instead of work, then added: "I am angry for what these children had to go through."

Ms. Bost wrote about the children's struggles and concluded, "I'm hopeful that the rich in this country will remember the struggle their ancestors made and help better working conditions today so all families can live productively."

This exercise would be scored in many subject areas: social studies, reading, writing.

Later, Ms. Bost said some parents have expressed concerns about MSPAP test questions that ask children for their feelings.

"Some are fearful that family secrets are coming out," she said. Others are concerned that the test scorers pass judgment on the children's opinions.

Ms. Goldberg said, "You aren't getting more credit for feeling one way than for feeling another way." There's never a way to predict what a child might write, of course; most have been trained at home not to discuss "family business." The teachers who spend the summer working as test scorers do not pass judgment on their experiences, and must maintain students' confidentiality, she said.

Many lessons

When the test ended and the two groups compared notes, they found many lessons in MSPAP for parents, for educators and for advocates of public education.

While all said it was appropriate for fifth-graders, none found it easy. And they were surprised at how much the answers could vary -- and still be "right."

Students can't cram, Mr. Wolgamott said. The language and the skills that MSPAP asks children to perform must be embedded in every day instruction, he added.

It's happening in many schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County and around the state, sometimes as early as kindergarten. However, it's still new in practice in many jurisdictions, even though MSPAP has been around for five years.

Change can be wrenching, as it requires an overhaul of more than daily lesson plans -- they demand new expectations, said Mr. Walbrecher. But he sees long-range benefits: The MSPAP test mirrors what business needs, he said.

Students will be prepared to collaborate in workplaces where ideas percolate up from the employees, where people have been hired to work with their minds, not their hands.

"If all memorization isn't sacrificed," in the rush to the new, Ms. Bost quickly added. Whether for the social studies test or for the science test, the basics are still needed. The children must be able to handle basic reading and math to perform many of the tasks.

For parents, said Ms. Pender and Ms. Yealdhall, the most important lesson is to get involved in children's learning, not just by helping with homework but by stressing problem-solving skills in everyday life.

In some jurisdictions staff development has not caught up with the demands of reform, the teachers among the group said. And schools must learn new ways to conquer the ill effects of poverty and family transience on the students who are preparing for the test, Mr. Stokes said.

More like a group of friends at the end than at the beginning, the test-takers disbanded to return to schools, jobs and families.

Before he left, Steven Ferrara, the state testing chief who administered the exam, apologized that the salt content of the water wasn't "more like the Great Salt Lake" -- which would have made the hydrometer differences more distinct.

But Table Two member Ms. Yealdhall laughed it off: "It made us work harder to see what the differences were."

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