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Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as Panel To Probe Validity of N.Y. Reading Test

Panel To Probe Validity of N.Y. Reading Test

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New York state's education commissioner is forming a panel of experts to decide whether a series of miscues will undermine the validity of a new 4th grade reading test.

Richard P. Mills announced last month that a six-member, blue-ribbon panel will report to him about the logistical and content problems in the tests and whether those errors will lead to skewed results.

Richard P. Mills

The problems--which ranged from some students inadvertently previewing material that appeared on the exam to tests not arriving on schedule in some districts--have not shaken Mr. Mills' confidence in the validity or quality of the test given to the state's 280,000 4th graders last month. But he wants experts to confirm that the errors have not given some students an unfair advantage, he said.

"It is important to assure everyone that this is a good test," Mr. Mills said when he announced he would create the advisory board. He was drawing up a final membership list for the panel last week.

Sneak Preview

The 4th grade reading exam, drafted under a $5.8 million, three-year contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill, is one of a series of new assessments in the core subjects and across several grades that New York is giving to students for the first time this year.

State leaders hail the test as more challenging than previous state tests. Assessments such as the 4th grade reading test will monitor students' progress as they prepare for high school exams in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Starting with the Class of 2003, students must pass the tests to earn a diploma.

But the debut of the 4th grade test was riddled with problems that some in the state believe will yield inaccurate and unfair results.

Mr. Mills and other state officials maintain that the problems were minor and say that they are calling for the independent investigation to allay doubts among educators, parents, and the public about the validity of the scores.

"We have a lot of confidence in the test," said Roseanne DeFabio, the state's assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. "We're eager to appoint the panel so the state has the same confidence."

On the multiple-choice section of the exam--which took 45 minutes of the two-hour, 45-minute test given over three days--one of the reading passages was the same piece of literature published in Scholastic Inc.'s 4th grade reading series used throughout the state.

State officials know of only one teacher, in New York City, who used the passage as a teaching tool before the exam, but they are not ruling out that students in other classes read the story before taking the test, said Bill Hirschen, a spokesman for Mr. Mills.

Students who read the story before taking the test did not necessarily get an advantage over those who didn't, according to Ms. DeFabio and an official with CTB/McGraw-Hill.

"A certain small number of students may have seen the passage, but in no instances did the students see the [test] items," said Michael H. Kean, the vice president of public and governmental affairs for the Monterey, Calif.-based publisher.

Weathering the Storm

Inclement weather also prevented about 50 schools from receiving copies of the test to give on schedule, starting Jan. 11, Ms. DeFabio said.

The documents were printed in Iowa, Mr. Kean said, and delivery companies struggled to meet deadlines in the air-traffic gridlock created by the blizzard that struck the Midwest and Northeast on New Year's weekend.

The problem was compounded when a snowstorm hit upstate New York during the week of Jan. 11, closing some of the schools that didn't get the tests on schedule.

Mr. Hirschen said every school in the state had exams to give to students as of Jan. 13. The state added two extra makeup days in the following week so districts with late-arriving exams could complete them, he added.

Despite the missteps, state administrators say they are confident that the panel of experts will find the test scores valid, and that the results will be published in school report cards as planned in March of next year.

New York school officials hope the blue-ribbon panel does not recommend that the results be invalidated. The new 4th grade exam gauges skills on a wider range of student abilities than its predecessor, said David L. Ernst, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

"There were some glitches," Mr. Ernst said of the new assessment. "But we think it will yield some helpful information."

Vol. 18, Issue 21, Page 3

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