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Thursday, December 18, 2014
What in the world was the state thinking?
Herald File Photo
Howard Schwach

From the first moment that I looked at some practice tests for the English Language Arts tests that were given recently, I knew that the kids and their teachers were in trouble.

Let me say first of all, that I am something of a test expert. For several years, I wrote test items for the eleventh grade American History Regents exam, travelling to Albany each year to work with a team of teachers from all over the state. In addition, I was a staff developer for the New York City system and the managing editor for the city special education division’s Curriculum Development Unit.

And, as a classroom teacher for more than 25 years, I developed thousands of tests for my own students.

Throughout all that time, there was one guiding principal: never test students on skills or material that you have not taught and practiced.

To do so not only would have been unfair to the students, but it would have made the tests unreliable and downright useless at a measure of student ability and knowledge.

That is why, when I looked at the practice test, my first thought was that the questions were in the deep end of the pool when the kids were just learning how to swim.

One that stuck in my mind was a passage from a 1920’s magazine about aspirin.

Because the source article was written nearly 100 years ago, it contained some archaic language and syntax that would have been confusing to today’s adults, nonetheless eleven-year-olds.

So the kids were at a disadvantage right away, trying to figure out the words they had never seen before, working them out through context. Then, the question called for skills that have never been tested before, nor taught by the teacher who showed me the sample questions. She admitted that she had been “teaching to the old test” for the past several years, trying to keep her kid’s all-important test scores up while trying to keep her job.

“Education has nothing to do with what we have been doing for the past couple of years,” the teacher admitted with a nervous laugh. “It has been all about the numbers.”

“The only skill we have taught is how to answer a four part multiple answer test question.”

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