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MSA puts pupils, staff to the test

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you ask him, Rocco Ferretti will say he is not nervous about this week's Maryland School Assessment tests.

But in the past month, the Anne Arundel County principal has tested every brand of No. 2 pencil that Office Depot offers, in search of a pencil-top eraser that won't smudge answer sheets.

He has spent weekends going over writing samples from every third-, fourth- and fifth-grader at Central Elementary in Edgewater. And he has studied their test scores with the same zeal that he once had for the statistics of his sports heroes.

"It's the Super Bowl for testing," he said of the high-stakes test that will be given to more than 460,000 youths statewide.

Across Maryland, school employees are suspending their routines and shifting all of their efforts toward the math and reading test that can make or break a school's reputation.

Baltimore County teachers are scrapping science instruction to spend extra time on math and reading. Carroll County officials canceled two vacation days to make up class time lost to bad weather. And in Anne Arundel, workers are replacing ceiling lights to make sure they don't flicker on test day.

This is the second year of the federally mandated exam for elementary and middle schools and grade 10 -- a test that branded a third of Maryland's schools last year as deficient in some respect. Those schools must boost scores this year or enter an improvement program that carries the threat of a state takeover.

Educators are even more anxious because schools lost several days because of Tropical Storm Isabel and wintry conditions. Teachers complain bitterly about the loss of instructional time as they rush to cover material they expect will be on the test. Testing begins Wednesday or Thursday and ends next week.

"Teachers are definitely feeling stressed," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. At about a third of the county's 102 elementary schools, teachers have put science and social studies on the shelf and doubled the time spent on reading and math in recent weeks.

In the troubled Baltimore City schools, which are in the midst of their biggest financial crisis and labor dispute in decades, teachers and principals are struggling to stay focused on the test.

"The majority of them are able to separate the frustration they are feeling from what they have to do for our children," said Cassandra W. Jones, chief academic officer for city schools.

In Carroll County, principals eager to squeeze in more class time before the test persuaded the school board to make up two snow days by opening schools on Presidents Day and another scheduled day off that week.

In Anne Arundel and Harford counties, teachers are drilling pupils with timed tasks and practice answer sheets, and counselors are calling parents to make sure pupils arrive on time and well-rested on the days of the test.

The Maryland School Assessment, which replaced the much-maligned Maryland School Performance Assessment Program used for a decade, was created in response to the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act. It measures not only the performance of schools as a whole, but of groups that often lag behind.

Schools previously considered successful now are being held responsible if a single group of pupils, such as African-Americans, the learning-disabled or non-native English speakers, misses the mark that the state sets for everyone.

Although the heat is on at schools that did not achieve what the state calls "adequate yearly progress," schools that met last year's goals have had little chance to rest on their laurels.

The bar has been raised this year and will continue to go up as Maryland strives to fulfill a federal requirement that 100 percent of pupils be proficient in both math and reading by 2014. This year, schools will be aiming for a statewide average of 45.9 percent of students deemed proficient in reading and 34.6 percent proficient in math. The goals vary slightly at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The pressure is not coming from the state alone. Some school systems that fared well last year are urging high-achieving schools to exceed Maryland's goals. In Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, principals have been challenged to raise their scores at a faster rate than the rest of the state.

"If we're going to make significant progress, we don't want adequate yearly progress to be the objective," said Barry Gelsinger, an assistant superintendent for Carroll schools.

Many school officials say they have not been neglecting regular instruction, but have integrated the test's language and format into classroom lessons.

But some teachers are spending most of their class time on math and reading as the MSA tests near, a fact that some school officials deplore.

"You read in social studies and do math in science; there's no reason to abandon those subjects," said Marion Miller, principal of Bellows Spring Elementary School in Ellicott City.

Some schools have made it nearly impossible to ignore the approach of the test, heralding it with contests, bulletin-board countdowns and pep rallies.

Champion swimmer Michael Phelps, an 18-year-old Towson High School graduate who is expected to dominate his sport at the summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, showed up at Riverview Elementary School in Halethorpe on Friday to encourage pupils to do their best on the test.

At Central Elementary, a slightly above-average Anne Arundel school, pupils have noticed that they are doing a lot more "brief constructed responses" -- the short-paragraph format of some answers on the test.

"It strains your brain," said Justin Rodgers, 9.

Third-grade teacher Chris Gamble has spent several lessons teaching her pupils to extract facts from a story to support their answers, as they must on the MSA test.

"I'm stressed out," Gamble said. "It's like a competitive thing. I want to be at the best school, so I want my kids to do the best. It's a reflection on me if they don't."

Although some teachers at Central say they aren't nervous, Ferretti said he feels tension among his staff. "Right now, we are probably at the peak of test neuroses," he said.

Ferretti has pledged to raise overall scores at Central by 5 percent, and increase by 8 percent those of about three dozen black pupils who are lagging.

In a binder, he keeps test scores of every child taking the MSA, including lists of pupils who missed achieving proficiency by only a question or two. He has asked teachers to work especially hard on test-taking skills with those children.

Just in case pupils haven't grasped the seriousness of the test, guidance counselor Dara Buchman has been visiting classes to read aloud a colorfully illustrated children's book called Testing Miss Malarkey.

The book tells the story of pupils at a school who watch in wonderment as the adults around them become nervous wrecks as a big test approaches, subjecting the children to math games in gym class and "brain food" at lunchtime.

On the last page, the fictional principal and teachers are back to their cheerful selves, celebrating the test results: Their school is ranked No. 1.

Sun staff writers Tricia Bishop, Lane Harvey Brown, Jennifer McMenamin and Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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