Friday, October 08, 1999

Don’t Keep 4th-Grade Test A Secret

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

There’s never been a test like the English Language Arts exam given earlier this year to New York’s fourth-graders, on whose slender shoulders and relatively poor grades now rests much of the current discussion of what is wrong with the education of our children.

These mostly 9-year olds — some were only 8 at the time of the test — must know what it is to be guinea pigs in a glass house whose walls are surrounded by politicians, journalists, educational bureaucrats and other onlookers who have invested a trivial pursuit with undeserved significance.

First there were the front-page stories detailing how poorly most of the students had done on a test they should have had little difficulty in passing, provided that they were properly taught and had the requisite skills. The Jewish media chipped in with articles showing how each school had fared and with the doleful news that too many of the most Orthodox yeshivas were guilty of a shande far der yidden — disgrace of the Jews — because of their poor performance.

Then there were reports of the tens of thousands of failing students who were required to attend summer school and of the many who would be left back. Now we have the news that some of the test results were misinterpreted by CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company that developed key parts of the test, so that overall the students did not do as poorly as was first reported.

McGraw-Hill owns and has copyrighted the exam. It cannot “be reproduced or distributed in any form by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.” The instruction manual contains repeated warnings against duplication and requires that teachers sign a document averring that they “are not to discuss this test, show it to anyone, or photocopy these materials.”

Taken literally — and there is no reason why it should be read otherwise — this means that teachers cannot discuss any aspect of the exam with fellow teachers or with their supervisors.

For all of the attention that has been paid, there has been nary a comment about the appropriateness of a public test required of all fourth-graders in New York being the private property of an outside business that has barred any of the documents from being reproduced. On occasion, The New York Times publishes SAT questions or parts of other exams and, yet, for all of the coverage that has been given to the English Arts Test, it has had nothing to say about the test itself and the rules established by McGraw-Hill.

As president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, I am involved with three schools whose students took the test. One school did poorly, another performed fairly well and the third did very well.

Because of this responsibility and my intensive involvement in day-school education, I wanted to have more than a second-hand view of what had transpired, which meant getting the exam material. Because I did not know of the McGraw-Hill embargo, I mistakenly assumed that this would be an easy task.

Ultimately, persistence paid off and I have the material. I believe that it is wrongful to keep these tests hidden from the public. Regents exams are public information, as are nearly all other standardized tests, including those for admission to college, graduate and professional schools. An entire industry has arisen around test-preparation. The McGraw-Hill folks should be well compensated for their efforts, as I am sure they are, and they also should learn how to properly interpret material that they have produced. Beyond this, standardized, governmentally mandated and funded tests must be regarded as public information. The right to know, so vigorously asserted in more tenuous situations, must override the monopolistic impulse of a private corporation.

Without public disclosure, it’s not possible to have an open or reliable discussion of the suitability of this material for fourth-graders. This is not an idle issue. The new language arts test replaces a predecessor that had been discarded as too easy and therefore also unreliable. My admittedly inexpert review of the material leaves me with serious doubts as to whether the McGraw-Hill test is too difficult for too many children. At the least, this is a matter that is entitled to a public airing.

The secrecy rules imposed by McGraw-Hill contributed directly to the misinterpretation of results and to the harm done to thousands of children and their families. In fact, what occurred has as yet not been satisfactorily explained. When I received the test results from Albany, I immediately noticed that each school was given a cumulative score in the 600-700 range. There was no explanation as to what this number meant, nor was I able to get a satisfactory answer from the state officials I contacted.

The instructions for teachers and students that accompanied the test raise questions about the competency of the people who wrote the stuff. What are we to make of phrases like “an independent writing prompt” or “nationally normed test” or “shrink-wrapped packages”? To think that these are the same people who are measuring the language-arts skills of our schoolchildren.

As important as these considerations are, they may be less compelling than the wrongful barrier interposed by state and McGraw-Hill officials that deprives parents of the ability to work with their children in preparation for the test. Parents have an overriding interest in the results and many would want to work with their kids. The improper and unwise rules of the game make it difficult for them to fulfill their parental instinct and obligation.

It may be legal for the state to enter into this kind of arrangement with McGraw-Hill, although I have my doubts about this, but what is legal may not be right. It also isn’t right if none of these concerns has made it into the voluminous reports on the fourth-grade exam. New standardized tests on other subjects are to be introduced soon and, if this precedent is allowed to stand, a veil of secrecy will be imposed on them.

Let us have a public debate about the propriety of the privatization of public testing and let us allow parents entry into a process that deeply involves the educational growth and well being of their children.