It was June 2002, and a group of teachers, educators and parents convened on the eighth floor of the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore. They underwent a brief training led by educational consultants, signed confidentiality agreements and quickly got down to the week's task: reviewing sample questions for a new state test.
Patricia A. Turner checked that the wording on third-grade math problems was simple and clear. "Kid language," said the Anne Arundel County math resource teacher. Rojulene Norris, the high school reading and English language arts supervisor for Prince George's County schools, pored over reading comprehension passages to gauge if they would challenge a 10th-grade student, but not be too complex.
With the samples drawn from tests used elsewhere in the country, one issue had particular significance: Did the questions measure a skill or concept taught in Maryland classrooms?
Maryland opens a new chapter in its high-stakes testing program beginning tomorrow, when more than 262,000 students will pick up pencils and open test booklets to take the Maryland School Assessment. The painstaking design and review process set up by the education department has left an influential imprint on everything from the companies chosen to create the test to its look and feel. It is the long-awaited, permanent replacement for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, an exam both beloved and reviled for a decade because it encouraged children to think critically but did not give individual student scores.
"This test will be much more straightforward," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "Parents will relate to this test being similar to the kinds of tests that they took."
Students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10 will take the MSA in reading and math over four days, for a total of about eight hours of testing. The format includes multiple-choice, short-answer and essay questions. Mindful that districts missed several school days last week because of snow, Grasmick said schools may opt to begin testing on Tuesday but must complete it by Friday.
This is the first time that 10th-grade students, who will take only the reading test, will be part of the state's testing program. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that high school students take a state test annually and brings several important changes this year. For example, students with limited English proficiency are not exempt from the MSA. College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville received a new fifth-grade international student last week who will be among the test takers tomorrow, said testing coordinator Ann Hefflin.
Unlike with MSPAP, MSA scores will be returned the same year the test is given. Parents will receive two scores, an individual score with details such as their child's mastery of phonics or computation, and a score that ranks their child nationally. Starting next year, grades 4, 6 and 7 will take the MSA as well.
In this inaugural year, state education officials have to do more than administer the test, mail booklets back to the testing companies and await the results. Committees including experts, teachers and parents from local school systems will convene again in Baltimore this summer to create a scoring scale that will give meaning to the numerical results. By late August, when classes are back in session, parents will know whether a child is proficient in fifth-grade math or if a school is below standard in reading.
The scores from this year's exam will set the standard by which school districts will be measured as they strive to meet "adequate yearly progress" required by the federal law.
Elizabeth Crosby, president of the Maryland PTA and part of the review group, saw concrete changes result from her input. On the math front, she pushed for a booklet that third-graders could write in, instead of them having to mark their answers on a separate sheet, something difficult for children at that age, she said. State education officials negotiated with the math test developer, CTB/McGraw-Hill, and the adjustment was made.
Crosby recalled that one of the eighth-grade tests had pictures of teddy bears "that were very babyish." "You want something in there that would actively engage them so they would do well." Another change.
Overall, Crosby said, "I think it's a very positive test for children."
The MSA differs in myriad ways from MSPAP, and across the state last week, school officials were making adjustments. Principal Denise Hershberger of Stevensville Middle School in Queen Anne's County said calm and normal were the watchwords in the days preceding the test.
While MSPAP used to spur pre-test rallies, Hershberger said she wanted her students to see the MSA as more than just a single test in a single week.
"It needs to be not a fancier type of event in their mind, a one-shot deal, but it needs to be a culmination of everything," she said.
The MSA test booklets at Deep Run Elementary School in Elkridge stayed secure behind locked doors in the office of Assistant Principal Patricia Shifflet. She put them in boxes labeled by teacher name and gathered the protractors, calculators, graph paper and rulers that students will need for the test.
It's been hectic, Shifflet said, "but this is definitely a lot less work" than MSPAP. A month before the old test would be given in May, Shifflet would be at the supermarket picking up plastic cups and pitchers of water for the group science experiments. The items were stored in an area known as the MSPAP closet, because some, such as aluminum foil, were used year after year.
One source of concern is the use of different testing companies, CTB/McGraw-Hill for math and 10th-grade reading, and Harcourt Educational Measurement for reading in other grades. "The children will not know that we have two different testing companies, but as a testing coordinator, you have to be vigilant in knowing which label to put on which booklet," Shifflet said. "It would have been good if they coordinated them a little more."
Grasmick acknowledged that using different companies complicates things. But she emphasized that the decision came out of the recommendations of the teachers and parents who helped with the test design.
Beth Ramsey, a third-grade teacher at Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer Elementary School in Waldorf, said she looks forward to seeing the test results, which she considers a measure of her own skills.
"If my children are not doing well and the assessment is based on instruction I've been teaching them since August, I will definitely take the feedback to heart," she said. "I love teaching because I love children, but I also want to be a good employee."
Educators also eagerly await feedback from students. Ten-year-old Tori Danielsa, a fifth-grader at Indian Head Elementary, is not sure what to expect.
"Usually when they make the first test, it's not the best test in the world. So I'm not sure if it's going to be a really good test or really bad test or what."
Staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.