I am the parent of an elementary school student in New York City, and even though my son is only in first grade and not yet taking statewide tests, the impact of the city and state’s testing policies are felt in his classroom.
At my son’s school, test prep began in kindergarten and has ratcheted up a notch or two in first grade, clearly shaping the work the children do. This has come at the cost of the more exploratory and play-centered sorts of things that I did in my early school years, and that concerns me.
The debates surrounding high-stakes testing also capture my attention because of my career history: I started out in educational publishing and moved on to public administration, spending much of the last 20 years on performance metrics, accountability and contracting.
So as word began to leak out about pineapple-gate and the other testing gaffes, I started poring over news accounts, editorials and public commentary from educators.
I learned that the tests themselves are being kept secret because the state Department of Education and Pearson, their test development contractor, wrote strong confidentiality provisions into the contract. My understanding is that this was so that they both could reuse test
questions in the future. In order for the questions to be reusable, they have to be kept secret, otherwise students could prep too easily for the tests, and Pearson's other customers would be able to get the tests from the public domain.
We only know about the gaffes because students exposed them. Educators have been sworn to secrecy. The Education Department has emphasized their concerns about test prep, but to me the secrecy seems rooted in economics: Secrecy saves New York on future test development costs and makes it easier for Pearson to re-sell the questions it created for New York (at New York taxpayers’ expense) in other states.
Two things strike me as odd about this. First, it's uncommon to keep tests completely secret after the fact of their administration. Letting people see the test is a basic part of education.
The purpose of testing is to measure how well a student knows subject matter and to identify what areas need work. If the only thing one knows about a child's performance on a test is his grade, and one can't review the actual test, the test is pedagogically useless and can only serve a punitive purpose.
If the broader community of parents, educators and researchers can't see tests, then we have no way of judging the connection between them and curricula or how to help our children.
When the only information that emerges about the tests is anecdotes about bad questions, we lose all confidence in their educational value and senior education officials’ assurances that the errors are inconsequential.
Second, from a public procurement standpoint, it's unusual for a New York State agency to buy content that is restricted in terms of who can see it. While the Education Department says differently, from my perspective, secrecy promotes the advantages that wealthy parents have in test preparation.
If the tests are secret, test prep companies can claim special abilities to suss out test content, which they use to justify their high fees and freeze out the poor. On the other hand, if tests are released (after a reasonable interval to allay cheating concerns), then the information is available to everybody for free and the rich no longer have this advantage.
While many contracts do have confidentiality and copyright language, the default position on intellectual property in New York State procurements is that the state either owns the content outright or licenses it with as few limitations as possible.
Content developed for the state with the state’s money should belong to the state, and should be available to the public unless there is a compelling public purpose for keeping it from public view.
This principle is best expressed by New York’s Freedom of Information Law, commonly referred to as FOIL, which states: “The people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality.”
With all this in mind, on May 3 I submitted a FOIL request to the New York State Education Department for copies of the exams and answer keys used in grades three through eight. I received acknowledgement of the request on May 7, but have not yet heard back about whether the request will be granted.
My hope in writing this article is that other people (and perhaps also, news organizations like The New York Times) will also file Freedom of Information requests, and that Pearson and the state will recognize the public demand for transparency in testing and reverse their positions on test secrecy.