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N.J. Test Called Reliable, But Flaws in Administration Cited

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Although a test given to 8th-grade students in New Jersey that may have inappropriately placed thousands in remedial classes was reliable, the administration of the test and the interpretation of its results were faulty, a review by the state education department has found.

"The most important conclusion we reached is that the Early Warning Test is not a flawed test,'' Commissioner of Education Mary Lee Fitzgerald said in a statement released last week in tandem with the department's report.

"Indeed, the E.W.T. as well as [an 11th-grade test] are viewed as 'cutting edge' assessments because they measure higher-order thinking skills and problem-solving abilities--far beyond the traditional multiple-choice questions on commercial achievement tests,'' she said.

But the internal investigation also indicated that department personnel operated largely on their own and were left alone to devise assessment policy.

Implicit in the report, officials said, is that former Commissioner John Ellis did not provide the leadership required to insure the proper functioning of the statewide assessment program.

Mr. Ellis stepped down late last year, two and a half years into a five-year term.

The report also blames some of the problems of the testing program on budgetary constraints and insufficient time and staffing.

Another Probe To Come

The purpose of the early-warning test is to identify students who may need help long before they take an 11th-grade proficiency test required for graduation.

Questions about the validity of the test, which was administered to some 80,000 8th-grade students last spring, first became public last month. (See Education Week, Feb. 24, 1993.)

Officials were concerned that the percentage of students who failed the reading portion of the test had risen significantly from the previous year. Scores on the mathematics and writing portions had remained relatively stable.

Had the test proved to be invalid, thousands of students could have been placed in remedial classes unnecessarily, although state officials advise districts to use the test as one of several criteria in identifying children for remediation.

While expressing her support for continuing the statewide testing program, Ms. Fitzgerald put forward a number of recommendations to improve it. Members of the state board of education also continue to endorse the program.

A hearing on another aspect of the testing program is scheduled for later this month. Assemblyman John A. Rocco, the chairman of the Assembly education committee, called the hearing following a published report that the state department tried to cover up flaws in the program.

The report found that staff members left out portions of a consultant's report, giving the action what it describes as the appearance of impropriety.

Mr. Ellis, the former state chief, could not be reached for comment late last week.

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