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NCLB Outrages

U.S. School Test Rules Lowering Standards, Study Says

Ohanian Comment: The test item writer crisis is even worse than anyone can imagine. About ten years ago, I had personal experience with McGraw-Hill freelance item writers. It wasn't pretty. I was under contract to write Math CrossSections, a series of 8 books with investigations to help students discover the math embedded in places like the White House, the Denver Mint, the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus, and so forth. Over my objections, McGraw-Hill insisted on hiring item writers. One of them produced such a bizarre set of math problems (one involved someone poisoning all the shrubbery at the White House) that I finally asked if maybe this person needed psychological assistance. I also announced that any of these problems would appear in the product bearing my name only over my dead body.

I have a collection of weird problems that have appeared on McGraw-Hill tests, items showing that people who write items for the fourth grade test know nothing about the fourth grade psyche.

For starters, just ask any New York teacher about the frog/toad under the lamp post writing prompt.

by Paul Basken

(Bloomberg) -- The quality of tests in U.S. schools is declining as companies producing the exams rely more on multiple-choice questions because of a surge in demand sparked by the No Child Left Behind Act, a new education group said in a report today.

The 2002 law setting stricter standards for public schools prompted states to reduce the number of questions that aren't multiple choice to make tests cheaper to produce and quicker to grade, according to the report by Education Sector, a Washington- based group. Kansas and Mississippi eliminated them altogether.

``There's an emerging consensus that it is low-level skills, rather than the higher standards that NCLB aspires to, that are prevailing,'' said the study's author, Thomas Toch, a co-founder and co-director of Education Sector. ``That's a problem.''

In signing the No Child Left Behind Act, President George W. Bush said regular testing would allow parents and educators to determine whether a school's curriculum is working. The law expands this year to cover all grades from 3 to 8.

Education Sector, which is backed by philanthropic organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recommended the federal government more than double funding for states to pay for new tests.

Test-Writer Shortage

The report found that test-preparation companies including Educational Testing Service and McGraw-Hill Cos. are struggling to meet the surge in demand for individual tests tailored to each states' curriculum, after decades in which they produced a single set of nationwide exams.

Educational Testing Service Chief Executive Officer Kurt Landgraf said the changes have left his Princeton, New Jersey- based test-preparation company engaged in a ``bidding war'' with other companies for test-writing staff.

Education Sector recommended the federal government increase payments to states for new tests to $860 million from $408 million. The report also recommended more federal spending to help colleges increase the supply of technicians who write tests, and more federally funded research of test-writing methods.

Test producers say there are reasons for the proliferation of multiple-choice exams beyond cost. Most fourth-grade students can't answer more than four to six problems in an open-ended format in a typical class period of 40 to 50 minutes, said Mari Pearlman, senior vice president for higher education programs at Education Testing Service.

That is ``about as long as you have realistically to keep the child engaged in the testing process and not begin to be measuring fatigue,'' she said.


Ronald Hambleton, chairman of the Research and Evaluation Methods Program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, agreed that the percentage of multiple-choice questions is not necessarily the measure of test quality. Yet the shortage of the test-writing technicians, known as psychometricians, is a real problem for testing companies, Hambleton said.

``We have probably the second- or third-biggest department in the country for training psychometricians, and we graduate four or five a year,'' Hambleton said in an interview. ``This year I'm going to graduate one, and next year it will be seven, but that's not even close to the numbers of people that we need to graduate.''

``The amount of test development, test administration, test scoring reporting has probably reached an all-time high in the field,'' he said. ``Everybody is just pushed to the limit.''

Education Sector released the report in Washington at a briefing held to announce its formation. Its co-founder, Andrew Rotherham, is a former Clinton administration education adviser. The group's backers include the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Fully Funded?

Massachusetts has one of the nation's best programs for monitoring companies that produce the tests, the report said, while the state's $8 million share of federal funding covers only 30 percent of its costs.

The Bush administration has argued that the No Child Left Behind law is fully funded.

``Our reports from the states are positive and they say they're on track to have their assessments in place, so it's premature to be making any sweeping judgments,'' U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey said.

McGraw-Hill spokeswoman Mary Skafidas declined to comment on the report.


— Paul Basken


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