Atlanta Paper Puts Test Questions to the Test

By Mark Walsh — September 27, 2013 2 min read
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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution continued its series on flaws in testing on Thursday, with a report on how new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts will face many of the challenges faced by older tests.

“Largely lost in the public conversation about the country’s aggressive testing regimen is talk of how to make quality control an ongoing priority,” reporter Heather Vogell wrote in the latest installment.

The series, “Testing the Tests,” began two Sundays ago with the first installment and a nice, hook ‘em lead regarding a test question about Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A Georgia 6th grade social-studies test asked whether Webber was a playwright, painter, sculptor, or athlete. The question puzzled some students because Webber is none of those things—he is the musical composer of such shows as “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“Multiple failures occurred before the first Georgia student pondered the Andrew Lloyd Webber question, emails show,” Vogell wrote in her first story. “For one, the answer to the question didn’t focus on what teachers following the state’s standards had taught—that Webber’s contribution to the arts was in the area of music.”

It turns out someone along the line of preparation of the test may have thought “composer” was not something students would understand. After some back and forth, Georgia’s testing director allowed the question to go forward and counted “playwright” as the correct answer.

Vogell quotes experts in her piece who say that states and testing companies have little excuse for failing to weed out flawed questions because “analysis that can quickly highlight problems is cheap and straightforward.”

In a “How We Got That Story” box, the Journal-Constitution explained that Vogell used her Spencer Education Fellowship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City to report the series.

“She requested documents on testing from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., conducted scores of interviews and reviewed news stories and federal reports,” the paper said. “The AJC also reviewed the statistics for more than 90,000 test questions given on roughly 1,700 tests in 42 states and Washington, D.C.”

Vogell worked with Teachers College, Columbia University, and testing expert Matthew Johnson, who is also the editor of the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics.

Vogell appeared in an online conversation with the Education Writers Association last week to discuss her series.

“I looked as widely as I could at the whole testing process, from the birth of the question to the score being handed to the student,” she told the EWA’s Emily Richmond. “And [I] found that the whole process is vulnerable along the way.”

One unfortunate matter for readers across the nation is that the Journal-Constitution has put the series behind its subscriber paywall, Many papers, even if they have such a paywall, put their top investigative pieces out for even non-subscribers to read.

So at the paper’s wsite, you can freely access a story with the headline, “Pigs just the latest wild animal to roam metro Atlanta,” but you can’t easily access Vogell’s series.

Luckily, EWA provided links to the first part of the series (here and here), and Alexander Russo provided a version of the second installment at his This Week in Education blog.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.