New Jersey Investigating Suspiciously Low 4th Grade Test Scores

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New Jersey education officials expect to have a better idea later this month about why the results on the 4th grade language arts exam given last spring were so much lower than on other areas of the state's assessments for 4th and 8th graders.

The poor showing was such a shock to some districts that Jim Murphy, the executive director of the New Jersey School Administrators Association, said he received 50 phone calls in two days from school officials who were certain that something was amiss.

It wouldn't be the first time that problems have cropped up in the scoring of state-mandated tests. California, Florida, Michigan, and, most recently, Minnesota, have all experienced delays or errors in test results. The surprising results in New Jersey, however, appear to have more to do with the way the assessment's writing tasks were evaluated, rather than a technical glitch.

State education department spokesman John W. Crosbie said the results raise the following questions: "Is the structure of the writing test an issue? Is the content sought for 4th graders on par with what they know and should know? Is the scoring too stiff?"

The department has dispatched its language-arts-assessment committee, which is made up of 4th grade teachers and curriculum supervisors, to review the 4th grade language arts scores. The panel will report its findings and recommendations to the board later this month.

State officials became suspicious when almost 75 percent of the students who took the test scored one point or less out of a possible four points on several items—far below the rates in other exam areas. There were also significant gaps between scores on the multiple-choice reading sections and on the writing tasks.

"The deviation was statistically significant to warrant a detailed review because we would expect student results to be more evenly distributed," state Education Commissioner David C. Hespe said during a press briefing last month.

Credibility at Issue

Media accounts of the 4th grade language arts review overshadowed otherwise encouraging results on the tests, which are part of the state's new standards-based accountability system.

The percentage of 4th graders scoring at a "proficient" level in mathematics rose to 71 percent compared with 66 percent last year, the first year the exam was given. On the state's first 8th grade science test, 80 percent of students scored at the "proficient" or "advanced proficient" levels. Eighth grade language arts scores dipped slightly from last year, and math scores were nearly static.

Observers gave the state good marks for the quickness of its response to the questions surrounding the 4th grade scores, and its willingness to consider changes.

Nonetheless, concerns over the writing exam will surely feed discontent among those who are unhappy with the state's assessment system, which is expected to cover additional academic subjects in coming years.

Unlike in other states, New Jersey's mandated tests in 4th, 5th, and 8th grades are not used to make student-promotion decisions. The data, however, are used in local curriculum and spending decisions.

"The credibility of the testing program is at stake," said Mr. Murphy, of the state superintendents association. "The test scores were supposed to go up, but they went down. It's devastating."

Mr. Crosbie does not think the latest snags will undermine the state's accountability push.

"We don't feel that's the case at all," he said. "Part of the reason that students are having problems with the writing test is that it is rigorous. We don't say, 'Here's the bar, jump over it.' But, we are questioning if it is too rigorous. We are looking at it."

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 35

Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as New Jersey Investigating Suspiciously Low 4th Grade Test Scores
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