A New Jersey parent complained about a question on a state exam that asked third-graders to write about a secret and why it was hard to keep. His complaints have led the state to re-evaluate the use of the question.
This is the second news story in recent weeks about the integrity of a test question on a standardized exam. A few weeks ago, there was an outcry about a question on an 8th New York reading exam that asked about race between a hare and a talking pineapple. I read the passage and the questions and have to admit they were strange.
In this new case, parent Richard Goldberg objected when his twin 9-year-old sons told him that the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge asked them to write about a personal secret.
Is this a legitimate complaint? The point of the question was clearly to prod kids to write, not pry into family secrets.
“All of the sudden, you have in a sense Big Brother checking out the secrets of families,” he said.
Goldberg felt the question ventured into topics that would best be kept quiet, and that it could raise some serious complications: What would test-graders do if the secret revealed has to do with a crime? And why would that question be asked anyway? New Jersey’s state Education Department is reviewing what happened.
Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams University, said the question doesn’t sound troubling to her. Asking about secrets is a good way to get children to write, she said. And, she said, children at that age are unlikely to say something that would offend their families, or even bare their own souls. “I think by and large, kids are not going to tell a real secret,” she said.
Last month, New York education officials said they would not score six multiple-choice questions about a passage from an eighth-grade reading exam about a hare and a talking pineapple after complaints that the passage, and the questions about it, did not make sense. And later, they acknowledged finding errors on math tests given to fourth- and eighth-graders.
Justin Barra, spokesman for New Jersey’s state Education Department, said the state is looking into who wrote the “secret” question. He said the question itself is being tested and that it was vetted for appropriateness by both the department and a panel of teachers. He said it was given in 15 districts to about 4 percent of the third-graders statewide who took the exam. Like other experimental questions, the answers will not count toward students’ scores.
He also said that while the department has fielded calls from several journalists, officials have not had many complaints from parents. Barra said he did not know whether the fact that the question was revealed in public would keep it off future tests — or what scorers would do if a crime was revealed. He said he could not say where the question was given or provide the exact wording because some students who were absent still must take makeup tests.
A further complication may be that at least some teachers tell their students that they can make up their answers if they don’t have real-life examples to give. What matters, the teachers say, is the form of the writing, not whether what they say is true.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog