In a last-minute decision to avert a potential health risk for children, Maryland officials have ordered schools to delete a science experiment from the state performance exams scheduled for next week.
About 20,000 eighth-graders, working in small groups, were to open vials of liquid latex Tuesday and pour a tablespoon of the substance into each of two paper cups.
Days ago, however, the State Department of Education learned that some children are allergic to latex, a relatively rare health problem but one that is increasingly recognized by health care officials, though not by educators and test writers.
Across the state this week, middle school administrators and teachers are opening test booklets and marking out by hand the experiment and two test questions related to it -- or pasting in typed revisions. Some will create a transparency with amended test language to project on the wall during that portion of the test.
That opens the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test to the possibility of security breaches and creates extra work at the 11th hour for teachers, but state school officials said the potential harm of exposing children to the latex was a greater concern.
"We try to learn lessons from things like this," said Steven Ferrara, the state's director of testing. "We designed the 1997 test 20 months ago and developed it through the '95-'96 school year, and had no information about this issue."
Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, said last night that she intended to create a panel of pediatricians to read all MSPAP tests and look for potential health risks.
The tests are put through a dry run the summer before they are put into use. Teachers helped develop the science experiment, and it was used in field tests with students, but none of the children or adults exposed to the latex reported any concern or allergic reactions, Ferrara said.
On May 1, state education officials received a call from a physician who treats a Maryland student. A teacher who was preparing for next week's test had read the experiment and, knowing a student who has the latex allergy, became troubled. A chain reaction of telephone calls led to the physician, who notified the state officials.
State officials declined to identify the people involved or the school where the discovery was made. Within 24 hours, warnings were sent to all 24 school districts, which had purchased vials of liquid latex to use for the tests, Ferrara said.
The science experiment is in one of three versions of the eighth-grade MSPAP; about a third of the state's 60,000 eighth-graders will see the amended test, he said. The test questions would have counted toward schools' science and language arts scores.
"I'm not nearly as worried about what the impact will be on the scores," said Leslie Wilson, testing supervisor for the schools in Howard County, where 1,000 students are to take the affected version of MSPAP. "I'm more concerned about the schools trying to make all those changes, with everything else that they have to do."
The amended test language arrived Monday, she said, and "it is a lot to do; it is pushing these people to the limit."
No one is sure how many children are allergic to natural rubber latex, a milky fluid produced by the cells of various seed plants.
Dipped latex products such as some gloves, balloons and condoms, contain more of the allergy-producing proteins than do molded rubber products such as tires, said scientists who are studying the allergy.
"The problem is that most individuals planning school curricula are not in the loop in the medical field," said Robert G. Hamilton, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who lectures on latex allergies.
"The two high-risk populations are health care workers and children who undergo multiple surgeries, who have direct contact with gloves worn by the health care workers," he said.
The allergy, which seems to develop over the course of repeated exposures, can produce symptoms ranging from swelling to wheezing to asthma, and even anaphylactic shock, which, if not halted, can be fatal.
The allergy has become increasingly common in the era of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus, during which many more professions -- such as police and firefighters -- have begun using rubber gloves, Hamilton said.
Latex rubber balloons are not allowed in the Kennedy Krieger Institute's hospital for children because so many patients there have the allergy, a spokesman said.
Hamilton said he knew of no studies or cases involving the allergy and the use of latex in its liquid form, but added, "I think it's prudent that the school system is not going to have the students use this. I think it's a good idea to can the whole experiment.
"I would say the risk to anyone is very, very minimal, but they are being prudent because the risk of an accident and the liability."
The greatest risk would be to a child who already had the allergy, he said, and a lesser risk is of exposing a child who might be on the way to developing it.
The middle of MSPAP testing "is not a good time to find out" that a child has the allergy, Wilson said.
Pub Date: 5/09/97