ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP)- On a recent February afternoon, 125 seventh-grade students at Annapolis Middle School sat down in a multipurpose room with a laptop, pencils and graph paper at their desks.
For the next hour, the boys and girls did their best to answer math questions - solving word problems, disproving equations, setting ratios - allpart of a trial run of a new test associated with the Common Core State Standards that replaces the Maryland School Assessment.
"It was different, very different than MSA, which I've been doing since third grade," said one veteran test-taker, 13-year-old McCormick Buchner. "First of all, the computers, and like, the way the questions are structured - they actually gave you just direct information on some questions, rather than just hiding it in the text. That was different. I liked it more."
That's the idea behind the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, state education officials say: applying knowledge.
"It's really makes kids dig deeper, to really know what they know and what they need," said Cecilia Roe, director of instructional assessment and professional development for the Maryland State Department of Education.
The tests are linked to the Common Core standards, which Maryland adopted in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and serve as criteria for students in math and reading.
March 2 is the first day of a 20-day testing window for schools. Another 20-day testing window is scheduled for May.
State education department spokesman William Reinhard said 75 percent of the state will take the test via computers, while 25 percent take paper versions.
The first testing section is performance-based questions, which are more complicated and require human scoring. The second assessment is an end-of-year section, which is all computer-scored.
Some advocacy groups have expressed concern about the transition to the new tests.
"One thing we're concerned about is the loss of instructional time that these tests take," said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "And that doesn't include the time it takes to prepare students for the test."
The biggest change students will notice from the MSAs in math is the idea of making connections, said Dawn Pipkin, an instructional resource teacher for reading and language arts in St. Mary's County, "so that math doesn't become these discrete little units." Within the new English Language Arts/Literacy test, students will be scored for the way "in which they organized and constructed their ideas" in the writing section.
"This year will be the baseline," said Pipkin. "All of us are preparing to see how the kids do, knowing that they haven't been assessed on these standards. This is much more rigorous than what they were."
Testing concerns aren't limited to Maryland.
New Jersey lawmakers have proposed legislation that would let parents opt out their students from the test, while students in New York and Pennsylvania sat out the math test last year. Last month the Mississippi Board of Education announced it was withdrawing from PARCC.
In Maryland, a bill has been proposed by lawmakers to set up a commission to review the state's assessments and testing. A hearing is scheduled Feb. 26.
The state's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said education is his chief priority, and spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said he had "major concerns about one-size-fits-all standards like Common Core and PARCC."
As for the students, reviews are mixed.
"I think it's better if you have laptops," said Aishah Asi, 12, of Annapolis. "Have that option not to always have to write that much."
Rida Albi, 12, of Crofton, said she prefers paper tests.
"A lot of times when I'm on the computer a long time, I start to get headaches," she said, "and then when we have a three-hour test, I might just get tired and not put in as much effort towards the end of the test."
Maryland State Department of Education: http://marylandpublicschools.org
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