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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

State Testing...The Saga Continues

By Peter DeWitt — May 04, 2012 5 min read
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On the third day of testing for the New York State Math Assessment, I sat across from the student whose test I was proctoring. He looked up at me after reading one of the difficult fifth grade questions and said, “I don’t know what to do.” I assured him to just try his best and he continued on to finish the test in 90 minutes. He and I were both tired of the test.

As I walked back to my office, I received a notice in a used box that was converted into a package that our ELA exams were being audited. When looking at the box, I did not realize it was a makeshift envelope. About an hour after that I received word that my third and fourth grade students were “chosen” to take the New York State Field Test. I was a bit surprised because there were field test questions embedded into the state exams.

Earlier in the week public school administrators received an e-mail from the state education department that stated there was an incorrect question on the state math exam. Considering the stress of the exams, hearing that there was a mistake on the almighty exams was not music to our ears.

The following is the memo we received.
“This notice pertains to Question 58 in Book 2 of the 2012 Grade 4 Mathematics Test, all forms (A, B, C, and D). Question 58 on all test forms has two correct answers. If during this test any student asks about Question 58, proctors may advise the student that there are two correct answers to this question. At the time of the scoring of the multiple-choice questions, adjustments will be made by the Department’s contractor so that all students who identify either answer will be given credit.
Please photocopy this notice and give a copy of it to each teacher who will be administering this test. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you and we thank you for your hard work on behalf of the students in New York State.”

One of my colleagues wrote to the Office of Assessment asking permission to tell the students before they started the exam and the office replied that they would prefer that the proctors wait until the students notice the issue before telling them about the mistake. I wrote the office as well but my question was never answered.

Some Blogs Write Themselves
As the week went on we received a few more e-mails from the state education department. The following referenced a mistake in the release of our school report cards. Those would be the same school report cards that the media and parents look at when researching how their local schools did.

“Dear Colleagues,
I regret to inform you of an error discovered within the release of our School Report Cards from a few weeks ago. The 2010-11 values under the “Percent with No Valid Teaching Certificate” and “Percent Teaching out of Certification” rows (found on page 4 of the Accountability and Overview Report) need to be switched with one another. All other data reported within the School Report Cards remains unchanged.”

The error took place on the accountability page of the report card. I began to wonder how accountable the state education department is when it comes to their jobs. Perhaps this is written out of frustration of constantly being held accountable or opening up tests that state what will happen if administrators, teachers or students cheat on an exam. Or perhaps it’s just the frustration of sitting across from students, who are between the ages of seven and eleven, day after day as they take 90 minute exams for six out of ten days.

As I left one week behind and began another, public school administrators were once again sent a memo. This time it referred to sample responses on the state test scoring materials. The memo said,

“The attached memorandum concerns some extraneous sample responses that have been inadvertently included in the 2012 Mathematics Tests Scoring Materials that have been provided on the CD for Grades 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Please photocopy this notice and distribute to each teacher who will be scoring these tests. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you and we thank you for your hard work on behalf of the students in New York State.”

Lastly, instead of a memo, a blog provided information regarding the fifth grade state math exam. In State Officials Throw out Another Pearson Test Question (School Book) by Anna Phillips, it was stated that a question on the fifth grade exam was thrown out due to the fact that students were never taught how to solve the problem.

“The question, which appeared on the fifth-grade math exam, was administered in a trial-run last year and vetted by teachers. Yet it was not until after it was included on a real test last month that teachers found and reported a major flaw: the problem asked students to find the perimeter of a trapezoid that could not exist within the bounds of mathematics.

Officials said the item was meant to test students’ knowledge of perimeter and geometric ratios. But because of the way the problem was worded, to arrive at the mathematically correct answer, fifth graders needed to know the Pythagorean theorem and how to find an imperfect square root, concepts they typically do not encounter until middle or high school. The “right” answer, supplied by Pearson, was actually wrong.”

In Closing
I feel that the thank you we receive for working so hard on behalf of the students of New York State is equivalent to the “sorry” Simon Cowell used to offer to contestants on American Idol after he ripped apart their performance. It just doesn’t seem heartfelt.

As we force students to take longer exams and hold teachers and administrators accountable for the grades on those exams, it is my hope that the state education department begins taking some accountability for what they are doing to students, teachers and education as a whole.

Yes, the exams are only a few days out of the year but the weight they hold has greater value than the number of days it takes to complete them. As they push testing they are also making errors in how they write the exams as well as how they score them. In addition, the very report cards that go out to the public have mistakes as well. Perhaps it is time to come together and work our way out of this mess so we can offer our students a better educational option.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.