Public Applies More Scrutiny to Exams That Are Supposed to Be Secret

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Pearson's debut as the lead writer of New York State's standardized exams ran into another problem this week, this time on the math exam that will be taken by nearly all third through eighth graders starting on Wednesday.

On Monday night, state education officials alerted public school principals that one of the questions on the fourth-grade math exam had two correct answers, but students would not be told this unless they explicitly asked. If they give either of the correct answers, they will get credit.

Another question, this one on the eighth-grade exam, has been thrown out because of a typo that made all of the available answers incorrect.

The corrections were made as the students faced three days of math exams, from Wednesday through Friday.

This is not the first time the state has had to send out last-minute notices warning about errors on the exams -- in fact, the state's Web site lists examples of Spanish translations gone wrong or answer choices mislabeled A, B, C, B.

But this year has brought a heightened level of scrutiny to the state math and reading exams, as teachers and principals give the tests fresh consideration, knowing that under the new statewide teacher evaluation system, and with the city's increasing willingness to close schools for poor performance, they could lose their jobs if students do poorly.

Although the test questions are supposed to be secret -- a recent change to prevent score inflation -- one reading passage became public knowledge last week after students wrote about it all over Facebook and Twitter, mocking it for being nonsensical.

The passage's author, Daniel Pinkwater, who wrote the original story about an eggplant racing a rabbit that Pearson purchased and modified to become a question on the English language arts exam (the eggplant became a pineapple), joined in, agreeing that the story was nonsense.

"There is much more scrutiny now because of the state's having ratcheted up the stakes for kids, schools and teachers, as well as increasing their length and cost to schools, as well as the fact that the state is determined to keep them secret," wrote Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, in an e-mail.

Pineapplegate has a predecessor though: Browniegate. In 2006, parents called on the state to throw out the results of the fourth-grade reading exam, claiming that a listening passage had been so confusing that no child should be penalized for getting it wrong.

The story was about an arrogant rooster who is tricked by Brownie, a cow, into getting up early each morning and crowing. The test asked children to write an essay about how and why the cow's behavior changes over the course of the story. Parents objected on the grounds that 9-year-olds were being asked to perform psychoanalysis.

This year, every aspect of the test has come under scrutiny, from the questions themselves to how much the state is paying Pearson to create it ($32 million over five years), to how much time classroom teachers will have to spend grading it and how much the grading will cost city schools.

And there is another problem in the air -- the air itself. For April, the pollen count is unusually high, experts said, and parents have complained that their children are sneezing and coughing their way through the six important days of exam taking.

Susan Barnes, the principal of Public School 112 Bronxwood, said that several of her students were suffering from allergies and that others took the exams "all doped up" on medications like Benadryl, which their parents give them before school.

She had expected to deal with the usual onset of nervousness and stomachaches, but not pollen. "I wasn't expecting to have to deal with allergy season," she said.

Principals and teachers' anxiety over the tests has been piqued this year not only by the new evaluation system, but also by the February release of 80,000 New York City teachers' performance ratings to the press and the public.

Those ratings were based on a formula that measured students' test gains against the progress they were supposed to have made, according to the city's projections.

The city's Education Department has also moved to close more schools this year than ever before, approving the phase-out of 23 schools in February, based in large part on their students' scores on the state exams, as well as on graduation rates.

On Thursday, the Panel for Educational Policy, a board that is controlled by the mayor, will vote on whether to close 26 more schools.

In comments to SchoolBook, parents and teachers are saying that some students and parents are feeling the pressure. Wrote Britta Sorenson:

I work with third graders. Two stopped and stared in a dead-panic for at least 20 minutes, hearts racing, freaking out over questions they weren't sure about.

One spent 45 minutes trying to read, then stopping, then trying to read again, only to tell me: "I can't do it. I can't do it. I don't deserve to go to fourth grade anyway."

After the test, many kids rushed to ask me what would happen if they got a 2 on this test, but a 4 on the math, or any other combination of scores. They said, again and again, how worried they were, and how they didn't want to fail. They didn't want to have to repeat the grade.

I remember feeling maybe 1/4 of this stress and panic when I had to take the SAT when I was 17. These kids are 7 and feel the weight of the rest of their lives on their shoulders while they take these tests.

Theodoric Meyer contributed reporting.