BECAUSE OF A PRINTING ERROR IN THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS'SAMPLE CRITERION-REFERENCED TEST, THE MULTIPLE-CHOICE ANSWERS WERE INCORRECT TO ONE MATH QUESTION PUBLISHED IN A GRAPHIC IN THE JULY 29TH MONTGOMERY WEEKLY. THE QUESTION ASKED FOR A RATIO OF PUNCH MIX TO WATER. THE ANSWER CHOICES SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE AMOUNT OF PUNCH MIX. "ERRORS, UNFORTUNATELY, DO COME UP," SAID MARLENE HARTZMAN, DIRECTOR OF THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATIONAL ACCOUNTABILITY. "THAT WHY WE DO HAVE INDEPENDENT EDITORS WHO HOPEFULLY WILL CATCH THEM FIRST." HARTZMAN STRESSED THAT THE ERROR WAS IN A SAMPLE BOOKLET, AND NOT AN ACTUAL TEST GIVEN TO STUDENTS. ON ACTUAL TESTS, PRINTING ERRORS ARE USUALLY CAUGHT WELL IN ADVANCE AND TEACHERS WRITE THE CORRECTED INFORMATION ON THE BOARD FOR THE STUDENTS TAKING THEM. ANOTHER QUESTION REFERRED TO A VENN DIAGRAM, WHICH WAS NOT INCLUDED IN THE WASHINGTON GRAPHIC. (PUBLISHED 08/19/99)

One hot, stuffy summer day recently, the future of the Montgomery County schools was being decided at Julius West Middle School: A group of teachers was scoring box after box of the vaunted tests that mark whether schools are improving and students are learning.

Regardless of whether people agree or disagree on the value of testing, the scores for the Criterion-Referenced Test, or CRT, ultimately help shape what they think about Montgomery County schools.

With so much at stake, much more was going on than simply scoring the reading/language arts and math tests for all third- through eighth-grade students. Every classroom was plastered with big white sheets of poster paper. "Students are getting better at" read the top of one list. "Students need to work on" read another. And, arguably the most revealing, another was titled "Implications for Instruction."

In other words, after scoring thousands of tests from students across the county, these teachers can tell exactly what they need to change in the fall if scores are to improve next year.

In the crowded classroom where teachers sat in groups scoring the seventh- and eighth-grade reading test, they'd determined students were getting better at using capital letters, and they scrawled their finding in black ink on the poster paper. The CRT also showed students need to work on punctuation and writing compound sentences.

And the lesson for teachers? They need to do a better job with poetry. Although the county's curriculum calls for a unit on poetry, the tests showed that some students were a bit baffled by rhyme scheme and had trouble analyzing a poem's nuances and layers.

This lesson, again scrawled on the poster paper, is what test enthusiasts call an "Aha" moment, when teachers see with irrefutable proof that whatever it is they've been doing hasn't really worked, and it's time to try something different.

"What you have here is teachers driving instruction," said an excited Marlene Hartzman, director of the Department of Educational Accountability, which oversees the writing, scoring and analyzing of the tests. "In a district this size, where you have 10,000 students on one grade level, if there's something in the curriculum you want to emphasize or change, how do you make sure that happens from Poolesville to Broad Acres? This gives us a vehicle, quality control, holding the teacher responsible for the delivery of curriculum."

"The essence of this is teachers talking to teachers," agreed Joy Odom, coordinator of student assessment. "Setting their own standards."

Students began to take the CRT six years ago as part of the county's drive to measure performance in its Success for Every Student Initiative. The county's goal is to have 75 percent or more of students reach their grade's proficiency standard. So far, only students in fifth grade have met that standard for reading.

But what began as a simple measure of how well the curriculum was being taught has evolved into a sophisticated tool to refine that curriculum and teaching methods and to hold schools accountable for it. Much of that has to do with the advent of stringent new state standards, tested in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP.

"When we started this process six years ago, teachers knew what was happening in their own classroom and maybe their own building, but no one was looking across the county," Hartzman said. "And frankly, we found things that horrified us."

"Students could have a beautiful answer and awful sentence structure, and they'd lose points," Odom said. "When we made teachers accountable and made the tests norm-referenced (against national averages), we started to see things really moving."

One of the first "implications for instruction" all those years ago was an emphasis on writing complete sentences. And when the MSPAP began to include open-ended questions, requiring far more thought, effort and clear writing than simple multiple-choice tests, the CRT began to require those higher skills as well.

Now, for example, students may be asked to read a passage, write about the characters and their feelings, relate their own experiences to those of the characters and organize and write their own ending to the story.

A little computer icon of a pencil with "Sentences Please!" reminds students that anything less will lower their score.

Tests also showed that students were having difficulty taking a math equation and writing a story problem for it. "The first year we did that, the answers were totally incomprehensible," Hartzman said. "And last year, some students wrote wonderful answers that had real-life applications, like being in a restaurant and ordering two tacos and an enchilada."

Back at Julius West, Craig Crowley, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at Takoma Park Middle School and has long scored the CRTs, said it took two years before the new focus on writing complete sentences showed up on tests. But he said it's gratifying to see such widespread improvement now, all the way down to third grade.

"I know people are concerned that teachers teach to the test. But I don't think there's any harm in teaching students how to handle a standard," he said. "Because we teach not only for the standard, but to ensure that student has a necessary skill. The CRT gives you an idea right away about where you need to go."

In fact, the big sheets of poster paper become discussion points for the teachers, he said, to share innovative practices or to suggest ways to better reach students.

Down the hall, Marion Richter, a reading specialist at Burning Tree Elementary School, is discovering that third- and fourth-graders need to practice how to use information to write a persuasive argument--a tough requirement inspired by the state tests. And math teachers are learning that this fall they need to emphasize checking over work and following directions.

"When we first looked at the MSPAP standards, we doubted the kids could reach that level," Richter said. "But when you create a little expectation, things start to move."

And the CRT and the lessons teachers learn from it are key to that, she said.

"We're obsessed with it," Hartzman said. "But it's a way to get a handle on what we do in a system this large. Our job is to prepare students for the world."

In fact, the big sheets of poster paper become discussion points for the teachers, he said, to share innovative practices or to suggest ways to better reach students. Many of the suggestions show up in a countywide newsletter, "Test Wise," which goes out to teachers every year.

ASSESSMENT SAMPLE TEST QUESTIONS

Montgomery County students began taking the Criterion-Referenced Test six years ago as part of the county's drive to measure performance in its Success for Every Student Initiative. The county's goal is to have 75 percent or more students reach their grade's proficiency standard. So far, only students in fifth grade have met that standard for reading. The test has evolved into a sophisticated tool that is used to refine school curriculum and teaching methods. Following are some sample questions from the grade 6 test.

READING/LANGUAGE ARTS

MULTIPLE-CHOICE QUESTIONS

Directions

Read the passage. Decide which is the best answer to each question.

MONEY

Have you ever wondered what happens to paper money when it becomes old and dirty? Today, the Federal Reserve Bank shreds as much as $27 billion in dirty, worn-out bills each year. At one time, however, the government washed and ironed money that was too soiled to use.

For about six years, from 1912-1918, when bills were in short supply, the United States Department of the Treasury washed up to 40,000 bills a day in giant wooden washing machines. A conveyor belt moved the money into a large vat where it was washed in soap, water, and a germ killer. Next, the bills were dried and ironed.

Money washing ended about 1918, when linen paper money was replaced by bills made of cotton. It was just as well, since the United States Secret Service complained that the faded look of laundered money made it look like fake money.

1. The Secret Service reported that the washed money did not look ___________.

A: real

B: clean

C: new

D: used

2. This story was written in order to tell you _____________.

E: how to collect money

F: what happens to old money

G: how money is made

H: where money is destroyed

You will read two selections about time travel. The first is an excerpt about the novel Time Cat, by Lloyd Alexander, a science-fiction story about a boy and his cat. The second is an article entitled "Time Travel," by Margaret McKelway, which tells about different methods of traveling through time.

After reading both sections, you will continue the adventure of Jason and Gareth, the main characters, by describing how they travel through time. To complete your story, you will use the information from the article "Time Travel" to make your story more believable.

As you read about Jason and Gareth in the excerpt from the novel Time Cat, pay close attention to the relationship between the characters, their feelings, and Gareth's special powers.

Time Cat

by Lloyd Alexander

Chapter 1. The Visitor

Gareth was a black cat with orange eyes. Sometimes, when he hunched his shoulders and put down his ears, he looked like an owl. When he stretched, he looked like a trickle of oil or a pair of black silk pajamas. When he sat on a window ledge, his eyes half-shut and his tail curled around him he looked like a secret.

He belonged to a boy named Jason, who loved him and believed Gareth could do anything in the world. As things turned out, Jason was right--not entirely, but almost.

It happened this way.

In the middle of a sunny afternoon, Jason sat in his room on the end of his bed, with his chin in his hands, and wished the past five minutes had never happened.

Downstairs, in that space of time, he had accomplished the following:

1. Spilled paint on the dining-room table.

2. Dropped his model airplane and stepped on it.

3. Coated the inside of one pocket of his jacket with glue, when the tube he had been saving for emergencies had come uncapped.

4. Torn his shirt.

5. Punched his younger brother in the ribs for laughing at him.

6. Talked back to his mother, who had not agreed his brother needed punching.

7. Begun to cry, a thing Jason despised because he considered himself too old for it.

There had been other details he preferred to forget. In any case, he had been told to go to his room, which he did, feeling put down and sorry for himself.

Gareth, who had been drowsing on top of Jason's pillow, uncurled and climbed onto the boy's lap. Jason stroked the cat, and ran his finger over Gareth's only white spot on his chest, a T-shaped mark with a loop over the crossbar.

"Lucky Gareth," Jason sighed, lying back and closing his eyes, "I wish I had nine lives." The cat stopped purring. "I wish I did, too," he said.

Jason started in surprise. Not because Gareth had spoken. Jason had always been sure he could if he wanted to. It was what Gareth had said.

"You mean you really don't have nine lives?" Jason asked, disappointed.

I'm afraid not," said the cat, in a very matter-of-fact way. "But, since you mention it, I'll tell you a secret. I only have one life. With a difference. I can visit."

"Visit?" Jason said.

"Yes," Gareth went on, "I can visit nine different lives. Anywhere, any time, any country, any century."

"Oh, Gareth!" Jason clapped his hands. "Can all cats do that?"

"Where do you think cats go when you're looking all over and can't find them?" Gareth replied. "And have you ever noticed a cat suddenly appear in a room when you were sure the room was empty? Or disappear and you can't imagine where he went?"

"And you've actually gone to a lot of different countries?" Jason asked.

"No, not yet," Gareth said. "I've been waiting for--oh, I don't know, a special occasion, you might say. I never saw much sense in just going as a tourist. It's better to wait until there's some important reason."

"I guess you're right," Jason nodded. He looked over at Gareth. "I was wondering if you thought there might be a special occasion coming up soon?"

"There might be," said Gareth.

"Gareth, listen," Jason said eagerly, "If it were a special occasion and somebody else, somebody you liked, wanted very much to go, could you take him with you?

Gareth did not answer immediately. He began looking like an owl and stayed that way for a while. Finally, he said, "Yes, I suppose I could."

"Would you take me?"

Gareth was silent again. "I could take you with me," he said, after a moment, "but I have to warn you of this. You'd be on your own, you wouldn't have any kind of protection. Neither of us would. Naturally, I'd help you every way I could; we'd be able to talk to each other, but only when no one else was around. Aside from that, what happens, happens. And you couldn't change your mind in the middle."

"Oh, there's something else. Whatever you did, you wouldn't dare be separated from me for any length of time. Otherwise, you'd never see home again. Now, if you accept those conditions..."

"Oh, Gareth, I accept!"

"Are you sure?" the cat asked. "Think carefully."

Jason nodded.

"Very well," said the cat. "Look into my eyes." And he gave Jason a long, slow wink.

Excerpt from TIME CAT by Lloyd Alexander, Copyrighted 1973, copyrighted 1980 by Lloyd Alexander. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt & Co., Inc.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

Time Cat

1. Who do you think will take a leadership role, Gareth or Jason, when the boys go time traveling? Support your choice based on details from the story. Sentences Please!

2. Suggest a different title for Chapter 1. Explain why your title is appropriate. Sentences Please!

3. Suppose Gareth asked Jason for a detailed explanation of why he was feeling sorry for himself. Write the explanation Jason would give Gareth. Sentences Please!

4. Think about the last time you felt sorry for yourself. How was your experience similar to Jason's? How was your experience different? Sentences Please!

MATHEMATICS

1. Juan was mixing punch for a party, using a punch mix and quarts of water. The ratio of mix to water was 1/3. If he used 15 quarts of water, how many punch mixes did he use in the punch?

A: 1 lemon

B: 3 lemons

C: 5 lemons

D: 18 lemons

2. Juan was on the soccer team but liked to attend the school's baseball games. The Venn diagram below shows the dates in September when the teams will play. What are the dates of the baseball games Juan will miss because of his soccer games?

A: 12, 14, 18

B: 11, 12, 13, 17

C: 14, 18

D: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

3. Juan's mother bought a hexagonal rug to cover the foyer. The tiles in the foyer each have an area of 12 square inches. Sketch the hexagonal rug on the foyer shown. What is your estimate of the area of the rug you drew?

THEMATIC OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

Juan wants to get a dog as a pet. He is interested in a border collie, which grows to about 3.5 lbs. His parents ask him to do some research and planning before committing to the responsibility of owning a pet.

A 20-lb. bag of dry dog food costs $24. If Juan gives his dog 1 1/2 cups of food a day, the bag will last 60 days. How many bags of food would he have to buy in a year?

How much will it cost for a year's worth of food?

How many cups are in the 20-lb. bag of dog food?

Juan constructs a daily schedule to cover the time for grooming, exercise, play, and training of the dog. He needs to spend 40 minutes exercising the dog each day, 10 minutes grooming, 10 minutes training, and 30 minutes playing. Construct a 24-hour schedule for Juan that also includes sleep, school, eating, sports, homework, and daily chores.

Source: Montgomery County Public Schools