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Two Investigations in N.J. Examine Validity of Reading Test

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State officials in New Jersey are investigating the validity of an 8th-grade reading test that may have inadvertently placed thousands of this year's high school freshmen into remedial classes.

Under orders from Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the recently appointed commissioner of education, the state department is conducting an inquiry into the possibility that the test was flawed.

The probe is expected to be completed by the next meeting of the state board of education, which is scheduled for next week.

A second probe is under way by Assemblyman John A. Rocco, who has scheduled a hearing March 15 on the matter before the Assembly education committee, which he chairs.

Mr. Rocco will also examine whether the state department tried to cover up a report acknowledging flaws in the testing program, as a report in The Star-Ledger of Newark has alleged.

Failure Rate Rises

The test was administered for the second consecutive year last spring to some 80,000 8th graders.

Dubbed the "early warning'' test, it is designed to flag students who may have difficulty passing an 11th-grade examination that the state will require juniors to take in order to graduate, beginning in 1994.

Because of funding constraints, the state has postponed the development of a test for 4th graders that would round out its three-pronged benchmark strategy. Instead, it uses commercial tests for 4th-grade students.

State officials were alerted that something may have been amiss when the percentage of students who failed the test rose by a significant amount, from 26 percent in 1991 to 34 percent last year.

Another indication that something may have been wrong with the reading test was that scores on the writing and mathematics portions of the examination were fairly consistent across the two testing periods.

An internal review was undertaken.

Alerted to the situation shortly after she took over the department in January, Ms. Fitzgerald initially attributed the disparity in the pass-fail rates to the possibility that the cutoff score was inaccurate.

"After digging up more information, she was uncomfortable with that conclusion,'' said Ed Richardson, a spokesman for the education department.

Mr. Richardson said Commissioner Fitzgerald then assigned two of her senior aides who had not worked with the testing program to investigate.

'A Raging Failure'

The story of an alleged cover-up angered Assemblyman Rocco, who has long been opposed to the education department's involvement in test development.

The department developed the tests in conjunction with C.T.B./Macmillan-McGraw-Hill of Monterey, Calif.

"If the report made anything clear, it is that New Jersey's multimillion-dollar school-testing program is a raging failure, and not our students,'' Mr. Rocco said in a statement.

"For years I have opposed the state's faulty decision to administer a skills test formulated at great expense by subcontractors of the education department, especially when credible standardized tests were available,'' Mr. Rocco said.

"Obviously, the internal report commissioned by our testing officials was discarded because it provides substantial evidence to prove the state's expensive testing program was a bust,'' he added.

Because the test is only one indicator of student performance, Mr. Richardson said, students would not necessarily have been placed in remedial classes on the sole basis of failing the test.

"Once we determine the nature and source of the problem, we can identify the populations of students [affected],'' he said. "At this point, we're not even convinced there is a problem.''

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