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Language Arts STAR Lacks Luster

Susan Notes: This is research that counts! Corporate politicos continue to give away the store to publishing committees, insisting that all matters pedagogical must bow to test results. Why doesn't the fact that the readability is 'off,' garner news headlines and public outrage? Where's the 'science' in standardized tests that dominate and destroy kids' schooling?

Many thanks to DeWayne Mason and and Gregg Nelsen for their work. Additionally, we need a readability index for the quality of the questions, which are often based on adult sensibilities, not children's.

That spring ritual is back-California Standards Tests measuring student learning under the State Testing and Reporting (STAR) program. Unfortunately, recent studies show STAR's language arts tests are unfair and inaccurate, leading to lower scores for students and unwarranted sanctions for hundreds of schools.

For nearly a decade, educators have complained about State testing in language arts. Hence, we decided to examine writing assessment and language arts passages from the Department of Education website. We analyzed proficiency levels; used the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale on 50 California reading test passages; and studied test passages from the websites of 35 other states.

We were amazed by the flaws we found last year, and more astonished by the paltry responses we received from State Superintendent, Jack O'Connell. Thus we began our own spring ritual-warning the public about pitfalls of these tests ("State exams flunk readability test," May 1, 2005).

We're two small voices unexcited about political pressure or letters to the editor. But until these tests are improved, we'll perform annual analyses, share our findings with stakeholders, and urge State officials to better do their jobs. Judging from this year's findings, our ritual seems doomed to persist.

Examination of this year's released reading passages (grades 2-6) found 71% with reading levels above grade. Moreover, 43% were beyond grade by more than 1 year, and a staggering 29% exceeded grade by more than 3 years. California's passages averaged 1.2 years above grade, higher than that of every other state studied, and almost half a year over released passages from 2004.

Our findings from writing test analysis were equally appalling. During a time of acute accountability and efforts by most districts to improve student writing, 4th-grade California writing scores declined from 14% proficient in 2001 to less than 2% proficient in 2005. This logic-defying decline came as 4th graders posted double-digit gains on their language arts scores-from 33% proficient in 2001 to 47% proficient in 2005.

This incongruity (research shows positive relationships between writing and language arts skills) stems from invalid scoring, unrealistic expectations for writing proficiency, or both. California's writing results are so shamefully flawed that officials dropped them from their 2002-2005 website postings. Clearly, California students are not as low achieving as these increasingly difficult tests suggest.

Research studies by independent groups show State testing programs to be hastily created and low in quality. For example, a 2005 survey of 23 state testing offices by Education Sector found 52% reporting problems recruiting and retaining quality staff. A full 35% of these offices reported significant errors by state test contractors. Indeed, numerous court cases and national studies have found testing companies deficient in developing valid tests.

Most educators feel California's standards need periodic revision-a process promised when standards were first adopted. Such a process would likely lead to refinement of language arts tests. Short of this type of larger reform or the more narrow renovation of our current assessments, STAR's language arts tests will lack the luster needed to lead stakeholders toward accurate and improved student achievement.

DeWayne Mason, former UCR professor and Jurupa Unified School District assistant superintendent, is an art teacher and co-principal investigator of Mathematical ACTS-a National Science Foundation Mathematics and Science Partnership Grant. Gregg Nelsen, a former teacher and administrator in JUSD, is an educational consultant.

— DeWayne Mason and and Gregg Nelsen


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