Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In $32 Million Contract, State Lays Out Some Rules for Its Standardized Tests

Published: August 12, 2011

Standardized tests in English and math taken by students in New York State are about to become slightly less tricky.

Beginning next spring, a new company, Pearson, will write the standardized tests that the Education Department gives to nearly all third through eighth graders. The department switched to Pearson this year after its contract with another company, CTB/McGraw-Hill, expired.

The department has advised the new company that catch-all answer choices known for tripping up students, like “none of the above” and “all of the above” and already rare in the state’s tests, are now banned.

Mirroring a national trend toward clearer multiple-choice questions, the use of the word “not” to confuse students is also off the table; negatives can be used only when necessary, the contract states. That makes it far less likely that students will confront head-spinners like: “Which of the following words can not be used to describe the tone of this passage?”

The details of what the tests will contain, and may not contain, are included in the $32 million, five-year contract the state issued this year. Tests written by CTB/McGraw-Hill came under criticism in recent years because researchers found that over time, the questions had become too predictable, leading proficiency rates to rise well above those on the national gold-standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The state made the tests harder to pass in 2010, and scores plunged. The new contract is more expensive — with $8 million in spending next year alone; the CTB/McGraw-Hill contract totaled $26 million over eight years. But it offers much more detail, a review of the contracts shows. Responding to complaints from teachers that even small things were confusing students, officials even specify the font — the clear, sans serif Highlights Helvetica — that must be used. They banned the extensive use of italics and bold, and the hyphenation of words between lines.

“Our intention isn’t to be tricky,” John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, said in an interview. “It’s to get an accurate read on students’ academic ability.”

Changes to content will be phased in, he said. Tests next year will resemble those given last spring, but by 2013 they will reflect new national standards, and include more difficult reading passages, more open-ended math questions, and writing assignments that ask children to focus not on their own experiences, but on interpreting information from texts.

The English tests must have roughly 80 to 90 questions, with reading and listening passages from at least five genres, like folk tales, reports, letters, poems and interviews, the contract stipulates.

Tests will also include more nonfiction. In the elementary grades, half of the reading passages will be nonfiction, and by the upper grades, two-thirds will be about history, science or other technical topics.

“We want to ensure that the tests give us a better read on progress toward college and career readiness,” Dr. King said.

Even the tenor of the texts is touched on in the contract. “The material,” it states, must “have characters that are portrayed as positive role models, have a positive message and be well written.”

If the state can find the financing, it plans to add testing for 9th through the 11th grade in English in 2013, Dr. King said. In part, that would allow it to assess annual student progress over a longer period of time.

Those results, in turn, will be used in yearly teacher evaluations, according to a new state law.

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