Friday, October 07, 2005

A Kinder, Gentler, (And Easier) Test?

The New York Times is reporting that standardized test scores in New York City have gone up because the tests are easier:
Parents are delighted when state test scores go up. Obviously, their children are getting smarter and the teachers are doing better. Politicians are ecstatic; their school reforms must be working. Indeed, during his re-election campaign, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has repeatedly cited the rise in the city's 2005 fourth-grade test results (up 10 percentage points in English to 59 percent at grade level, and up 9 points in math to 77 percent) as proof that his school programs are a success. "Amazing results," he said, that "should put a smile on the face of everybody in the city."

However, those in the trenches, the teachers and principals, tend to view the scores differently. While they would rather be cheered than booed, they know how much is out of their control.

Take Frances Rosenstein, a respected veteran principal of Public School 159 in the Bronx. Ms. Rosenstein has every right to brag about her school's 2005 test scores. The percentage of her fourth graders who were at grade level in English was 40 points higher than in 2004.

How did she do it? New teachers? No, same teachers. New curriculum? No, same dual-language curriculum for a student body that is 96 percent Hispanic and poor (100 percent free lunches). New resources? Same.

So? "The state test was easier," she said. Ms. Rosenstein, who has been principal 13 years and began teaching in 1974, says the 2005 state English test was unusually easy and the 2004 test unusually hard. "I knew it the minute I opened the test booklets," she said.

The first reading excerpt in the 2004 test was 451 words. It was about a family traveling west on the Oregon Trail. There were six characters to keep track of (Levi, Austin, Pa, Mr. Morrison, Miss Amelia, Mr. Ezra Zikes). The story was written in 1850's western vernacular with phrases like "I reckon," "cut out the oxen from the herd," "check over the running gear" for the oxen, "set the stock to graze," "Pa's claim."

Ms. Rosenstein said such language was devastating for her urban Hispanic children. "They're talking about a 'train' and they mean wagon train," she said. "Our kids know the subway. I walked into a class and there was a girl crying. I took the test booklet and read it. I thought, 'Oh, my God, we're in trouble.' "

In contrast, the first reading in the 2005 test was 188 words about a day in the life of an otter. A typical sentence: "The river otter is a great swimmer." Ms. Rosenstein said: "The otter story was so easy, it gave our kids confidence. It was a great way for them to start the test."

She said the pattern continued throughout the two tests. In 2004, on the "hard test," the second passage was about the Netherlands thanking Canada for its support during World War II by sending 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa. The third story was about a photographer, Joel Sartore, who embedded himself in Madidi National Park in Bolivia to get rare nature shots.

"These were very sophisticated pieces," Ms. Rosenstein said. "We teach our kids when reading to make a connection to themselves. These stories were foreign to their experience. You didn't have anything like this on the 2005 test."

In 2005, on the "easy test," the second passage was about hummingbirds. The third was about a boy who thought he won a real horse, but it was a china horse. The story was told mainly in dialogue that read like the old Dick and Jane primers.

"What a difference from the 2004 test," Ms. Rosenstein said. "I was so happy for the kids - they felt good after they took the 2005 test."
In an e-mail message, Jonathan Burman, a state education spokesman, said there was no cultural bias on the 2004 test. He said the 2004 and 2005 tests were extensively field-tested. "We found that the passages could be understood by all students, including urban students," he wrote.

He acknowledged that the 2004 test was harder but said the state compensated by using a tougher scale to score the 2005 test. "Students had to answer a few more questions correctly in 2005 and get more raw points in order to get the same scaled score as in 2004," he said. But even if the 2005 test was scaled, scores still soared statewide, with 70.4 percent at grade level, up 8.2 percentage points from 2004 and with several cities - Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester - posting increases even higher than New York City's.

So. Did the kids get the higher scores because of the teachers, the scaling, or the otters?
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