What do tests measure?

What do tests measure? The NY Times’ Room for Debate blog asks for opinions on whether New York City’s rising test scores are meaningful. Sandra Stotsky, who led the development of Massachusetts’ state exams, notes that all countries test K-12 students at some point.

If the test requires students to do something academically valuable — to demonstrate comprehension of high quality reading passages at an appropriate level of complexity and difficulty for the students’ grade, for example — then, of course, “teaching to the test” is appropriate. That is exactly what we want English or history teachers to do.

However, her evaluation of New York’s grade 8 reading selections found “the test was assessing the ability to understand passages more appropriate for grades 4 and 5.”

On City Journal, Marc Epstein lambastes the New York Regents exam, which is scored to give the greatest weight to subjective questions.

. . . This year, for example, a cartoon of John D. Rockefeller holding the White House in the palm of his hand prompts the question: “What is the cartoonist’s point of view concerning the relationship between government and industrialists such as Rockefeller?” Another question deals with a cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt hunting bears. He’s holding a submissive bear with the name “good trust” on a leash while stepping on the carcass of a dead bear with the name “bad trust.” The question: “What was President Roosevelt’s policy towards trusts?”

The Global History Regents isn’t much better. A reading excerpt about child-labor abuse in nineteenth-century England begins with a sentence that reads in part, “it has always been a general reflection, that the children were very great sufferers, and seemed sickly and unhealthy.” The question: “According to Dr. Agnew, what is one impact the Industrial Revolution had on children?” Any answer that contains “suffer,” “sick,” or “unhealthy” will earn points.

The test is “gamed” to jack up scores and pass rates, writes Epstein, who is a high school teacher.

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