Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Mishaps Still Plague Citywide Reading Test

Ohanian Comment: If little kids' fate in school weren't on the line, this would would be funny. The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is reborn. Three cheers for Jane Hirschmann. She nails it. How can you trust a testing procedure that can't even get the answer sheets right? At least teachers can reveal answer sheets snafus. What about question snafus? It's a secret test and the public is not allowed to know how inappropriate and invalid it is.

I've said it many times and I'll say it again: If you don't have doubts about test validity and if you do have doubts, read Children and Reading Tests by Clifford Hill and Eric Larsen. It is a stunner, providing a close-up look of actual test items--and children's reasons for answering questions the way they did. Read this book and you'll never let the fate of any child you know depend on a standardized reading test. Read this book and you will become militant about protecting other children from tests.

The only way this atrocity is going to stop is for ordinary people--teachers and parents--to stand up and say: We're mad as hell and we're not going to take this any more.

What are you waiting for?

Officials insisted that the test would count unless further analysis showed that scores were thrown off. Know why would be scores be thrown off? All that happened is that:

the answer sheets did not match the test. Where some questions offered answer choices of E, F, G and H, the answer sheet showed bubbles for only A, B, C and D.

Put in multiple-choice form, the question for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein yesterday might have gone like this: Which of the following mishaps occurred on this year's citywide reading test? (A) Some teachers wrongly used last year's test for practice, giving children a peek at questions repeated on this year's exam. (B) Some questions were shown on television, forcing a postponement of makeup exams. (C) The answer sheet for yesterday's makeup test did not match the test booklet, causing widespread confusion, or (D) All of the above.

The correct answer, city education officials said yesterday, was (D).

As teachers across the city opened shrink-wrapped packages of exam booklets to administer the makeup reading test yesterday morning, they discovered that the answer sheets did not match the test. Where some questions offered answer choices of E, F, G and H, the answer sheet showed bubbles for only A, B, C and D.

Despite the problem, officials said the test would count unless further analysis showed that scores were thrown off.

The citywide exams have taken on added importance this year because they are a crucial factor in Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's new promotion policy for third graders. Under the policy, any student scoring at Level 1, the lowest of four rankings, on either the reading or math test faces the possibility of being left back.

In all, 2,400 children, including 1,300 third graders, took the makeup exam yesterday. Of the third graders, about half missed the original test on April 20 because they were sick and half were retaking the test because they had had an improper sneak peek at questions repeated from last year.

The problem with the answer sheets appeared to be a printing error by the test publisher, Harcourt Assessment Inc. But critics of standardized testing, who have been among the most outspoken opponents of the mayor's promotion policy, seized on the problem for a new round of attacks.

"People might want to address this issue today as a quality-control issue," said Jane Hirschmann of the group Time Out From Testing. "But from where we stand, it's not a quality-control issue, it's the icing on the cake, pointing to why no one should use a single score on a test to determine an 8-year-old's future."

In comments directed at Mr. Bloomberg, Ms. Hirschmann said: "I think it's about time that he put a stop to this nonsense and really said that this test is not going to be used for a high-stakes purpose because it is unreliable, invalid and we just can't get it straight."

City Councilwoman Melinda R. Katz, a Queens Democrat, said she had filed suit against the city on behalf of students at Public School 174 who were forced to retake the test because they had seen some questions in advance.

Ms. Katz said that yesterday's test should be invalidated because of the answer sheet problem and that teachers should make promotion decisions on their professional judgment. "Now the children have to decipher the grids as well," she said. "This whole exam has been riddled with so much controversy, maybe we need to start from scratch."

The president of the city teachers' union, Randi Weingarten, urged officials to discard the test results. "The test is tainted, and the retest needs to be invalidated," she said.

Mr. Bloomberg's office declined to comment yesterday, referring questions to the Education Department.

Education officials said schools were instructed to proceed with the exam and either to have students circle the correct answer in the question booklet or to simply use the A, B, C and D bubbles on the answer sheet as if they were labeled E, F, G and H. Schools were permitted to delay the start of the test by half an hour, but students were not given any extra time. There are 50 questions, and students were given 65 minutes to complete them.

Officials said Harcourt would grade the exams regardless of how students filled in the answers. "The students' answers will be recorded into the test publisher's scoring system," the Education Department said in a statement. "Verification will assure that the recorded answers match the students' written responses. Statistical analyses will be performed to ensure that the test results are valid and reliable."

In the statement, Chancellor Klein said that Harcourt had accepted responsibility and added, "On behalf of our students, their parents and teachers, we are extremely disappointed that the test was delivered with such errors."

In its own statement, Harcourt apologized. "This error occurred in our haste to prepare a makeup test that was necessitated by a breach of security," the company said in a reference to test questions being shown on television. "We are sorry for this error.''

— David M. Herszenhorn





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.