In New York State, standardized tests are a big deal. Students started preparing for the 2012 English Language Arts and Math exams at the end of last school year. Teachers — at least at my school — are required to attend endless professional development sessions to help them better prepare their students for these rather daunting assessments. If students don’t pass, they’re likely to either be held over or forced to attend summer school.
The recent buzz surrounding standardized tests suggests all this pressure and preparation may have been undermined by some rather perplexing test flaws.
The 8th grade ELA test contained an odd question about an even odder fable involving a talking pineapple that apparently had no correct answer. According to WNYC’s and The New York Times’ joint website, Schoolbook, a 4th grade ELA question involved a passage about a talking yam that had previously been required reading for some schools and not for others. Hardly fair.
The New York State Math exam wasn’t free from criticism either. One 8th grade math question had no correct answer, so students were told at the beginning of the test that if they bubbled in any answer, they would still receive credit. In another case, one 4th grade math question had two correct answers, but teachers were advised only to let the students know about the flaw if they specifically asked about the question. Not exactly consistent test protocol.
Elizabeth Phillips, Principal of PS 321 in New York City, wrote a letter to John B. King Jr., education commissioner of New York State, enumerating her many concerns. In it, she states that even adults in her building were unable to decode some questions on the 5th grade ELA exam and asserts that such questions were more of a trick than a test. She also accuses test maker Pearson of putting urban students at an unfair disadvantage by including a large number of questions set in rural and suburban areas on the most heavily-weighted section of the 4th grade ELA exam. Principal Phillips:
“I have been principal for 13 years and have read the tests each year. Although there are always issues with selected questions, generally it is only one or two per test that the assistant principals and I can’t quite agree on. I am genuinely shocked that with the increased importance of state testing, there are so many more flawed questions than ever before.”
She goes on to hammer home the true significance of these problematic tests, not just for students, but for schools and teachers as well:
“The idea that teachers may lose their jobs and schools (at least in New York City) may be closed based on how children do on these problematic exams is incredibly upsetting and demoralizing to educators…I hope that you will consider recommending to the State Legislature that given the flaws in the tests, we are not yet ready to use them for high stakes decision making.”
So why weren’t mistakes fixed and unfair questions tossed out ahead of time? It seems test-maker Pearson and that familiar root-of-all-evil, money, are at least partially to blame.
It’s not the first time that oddities like the — let’s say, interesting — pineapple question have popped up on standardized tests. According to Diane Ravitch, an education professor at NYU, Pearson’s test questions have varying price tags. For states like Texas that are willing to slap down $500 million, Pearson is willing to provide nice, new, high-quality questions that haven’t previously appeared on other states’ standardized tests. New York, however, a state that had only a measly $32 million for Pearson, gets the old, recycled, sometimes flawed questions, even if other states have already used them in standardized tests and found them lacking.
Fred Smith’s article in the Washington Post sheds more light on Pearson’s money-driven strategy. He writes that according to their contract, they have to include “20-25 nationally-normed multiple-choice questions per grade.” That means that they’re spitting out between 120 and 150 nationally-normed questions in both ELA and Math — questions that they don’t have to spend money on developing from scratch. They embed them in state tests, then turn around and sell them to other states with data showing how kids do on them. The result? Exponential profits for minimal work.
Again from Principal Phillips:
“I know that the state already has a long-term contract with Pearson, but there is something seriously wrong with a testing company that has such inappropriate questions and passages on such a high stakes test.”
If companies like Pearson are all about the bottom line, how can we guarantee that the quality of work they produce is fit to measure our students’ progress? Why should students, teachers and support staff go through extensive efforts for exams that won’t even give them an accurate measure of improvement?
It’s called high-stakes testing for a reason. The fact that these tests, particularly in New York State, can be the difference between a student moving on to the next grade or being held back means that test-providers have a duty to make sure that they are providing high-quality, accurate materials. Anything less is a waste of schools’ scarce resources and essentially renders the entire testing process moot.
I guess for those opposed to standardized testing, Pearson’s recent mistakes are just one more piece of evidence to ditch standardized tests and move toward a more informative, comprehensive way of assessing our students.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Hans Gerwitz via Flickr