Florida newspaper demands an end to test secrecy

As the testing season opens across the country, once again the debate is going on state by state about “test transparency”.

That means, should all states be required to release their tests once the tests have been administered. Contents of tests are already published by New York, Massachusetts, and Texas. These contents include test questions, answers, and other information. One of Florida’s most important newspapers weighed in on the subject during the same week Chicago elementary school children were taking the ISAT test. As the movements for a careful examination of high-stakes testing grow across the USA, the silence from Chicago and Illinois regarding secret, machine scored, high-stakes tests remains a puzzle to many people.

Here is what one major Florida newspaper said in March 2008 about the need to release the complete FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) information.

TO BOOST SCORES: FCAT TRANSPARENCY (Daytona Beach News-Journal Editorial, March 12, 2008)

It’s testing week in Florida schools. Contrary to what the state or your child’s school may have you believe, revealing the contents of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test does not endanger national security. It may even help it, considering that better-educated students strengthen national security.

The FCAT bureaucracy disagrees. Revealing a test’s questions after it’s been administered would require the company that writes the test to produce a new one every year, in every subject. That would add to the annual $38 million to $44 million it costs to write, administer and score the tests.

In FCAT math, what the state spends, and how much the company profits from it, is more important than whether the test is the tool it’s designed to be — showing students exactly what they’re learning well and what they need to improve on. Secrecy ensures that the only things students get are their grades, which are then used to judge their school and either reward it with cash or humiliate it with a bad grade.

The secrecy over the test is producing a crop of absurd measures, foolishness and disgrace. Teachers and administrators must sign an oath promising that they’ll uphold the test’s secrecy. Last year a student at Atlantic High School took a picture of test pages with his cell phone and posted the shots on the Web. Now students are forbidden from bringing any kind of electronic device anywhere near their testing zone, including music players (which could be very good for the nerves just before the test) and phones.

Extreme secrecy combined with intense pressure to perform sooner or later tempts rule-breakers, either to flaunt the system or to gain an advantage. The student who photographed the test was just jeering at the system. The stunt wasn’t going to gain the student an advantage. To the contrary. He was found out, and his test invalidated. We can’t know, until they’re found out, that more serious breaches aren’t taking place.

And what about the state’s own disgrace in all this? Two years ago a lawsuit by a Democratic lawmaker revealed that many of the temporary workers hired to score the test had no specialties in the field or no bachelor’s degrees, including a video store clerk and a janitor. Last year blunders were discovered in the third-grade reading tests administered in 2006, leading to a deceptively historic spike (or drop) in grades, depending on which year’s results were analyzed. As for actual errors in specific questions — it’s impossible to know what those may be. Judging from the history of standardized testing, the only certainty is that errors sometimes happen, but get corrected through transparency. The FCAT doesn’t do transparency.

Under pressure from parents and schools the state publishes a few samples from past tests on its Web site — but very few. The tests are helpful. But they’re not a substitute for fuller disclosure. The state can’t honestly argue that it cannot demand more openness from its testing company, British-based Pearson, even for a few dollars more (not when its legislators are proposing to increase by $150 million a dubious corporate tax credit that underwrites private-school vouchers). The company should be compelled to do what profits Florida students most. Transparency does. Currently inane levels of secrecy do not.

[http:// journalonline. com/ NewsJournal Online/ Opinion/ Editorials/ opnOPN20031208.htm].

This article was originally published in the print edition of Substance, April 2008.


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