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Maryland Should Invalidate the Results Of New Testing Program, Teachers Say

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A new statewide assessment administered to 170,000 Maryland students last month was so flawed that state education officials should invalidate its results, the state's largest teachers' union has urged.

At a press conference late last month, leaders of the Maryland State Teachers Association said that the new assessment, which was administered to all 3rd-, 5th-, and 8th-grade students, contained questions and instructions that were offensive, age-inappropriate, and inaccurate.

"We are in agreement with the idea that criterion-referenced assessments have the potential to be educationally superior to multiple-choice tests,'' said Jane Stern, the union's president. "The only problem is that if you are going to give them, they can't be written by a Larry, Moe, or Curly.''

The nine-hour, performance-based tests, called the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, are the cornerstone of the state's effort to make schools more accountable.

The tests feature tasks that integrate several subject areas and hands-on activities.

Over the next two years, the state board of education is slated to create standards for test performance, and schools will be judged according to the standards five years after that.

Last year, students in the 3rd-, 5th-, and 8th-grades were tested in reading, writing, language usage, and mathematics. This year, students were tested in all those areas, plus social studies and science. Selected 11th-grade students were also given pilot tests.

Robert E. Gabrys, the assistant state superintendent for school performance, acknowledged that the tests still had some kinks that have to be worked out. But the flaws are not serious enough to invalidate the results, he said.

"We're committed to working through the problems,'' he said.

Teachers Seek Greater Say

The M.S.T.A. said some of the more questionable items and aspects of the tests included:

  • Instructions for students to use the light coming into their classroom to determine the focal length of a lens. Some classrooms, the union pointed out, do not have windows.
  • On other sections of the test, students were told to stop work prematurely or were given inaccurate instructions.
  • A question that asked 3rd-grade students to describe the human, financial, and natural resources of an African country and explain what the country could do to remain economically viable.

"If you can do that in the 3rd grade, then you don't have to be in school anymore,'' Ms. Stern said.

  • A question on the test for 5th-grade students about the limits of the First Amendment featured a cartoon of a barker encouraging passers-by to attend a nude dancing performance. By his side is a picture of a young woman in a provocative pose and the word "Live'' beneath her.

"We found that this was offensive and demeaning to students,'' Ms. Stern said.

The union president said the M.S.T.A. had offered to work with the state on developing the test items, but was rebuffed. Teachers in general were not given enough say on the test, she contended.

Mr. Gabrys said the state department of education intends to work with the union in the future to develop guidelines for test items.

Teachers played an important role in drafting the current test, Mr. Gabrys maintained. Each school district could nominate 15 people to work on the tests, he noted, and many of those nominated were department heads.

He said tasks in each subject area were developed by a coordinating committee that had a dozen people with statewide reputations in their field.

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