What Do the Tests Test?

My eight-year-old grandchildren, Sadia and Gideon, seem to have survived the third grade ELA and Math tests without being scarred for life. From their perspective, it was "Much Ado About Nothing," and they were more concerned about the start of the little league baseball season in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

For me, the bigger questions remain the value of these tests in the education of children, especially the impact they have on what gets taught (curriculum), how it is taught (pedagogy), and how learning is accurately measured (assessment).

What do these high stakes standardized tests actually test?

Based on his study of student performance on standardized tests from 1960 to 2010, Sean Reardon, in a recent essay in The New York Times, reports that "Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores." The gap continues to rise, and according to Reardon, family income is a better predictor of student performance on these tests than any other factor. It appears that all the high stakes standardized tests measure is the socio-economic status and earnings of parents and not how much students know or how well they will perform in school.

Rather than waste all this time and money on testing, an alternative is to just throw out the standardized tests and assign students to classes, schools, and colleges, based on their parents' income tax forms. While this may not be fair to students from poorer families, tax revenues would probably rise. The wealthy would be less inclined to search for loopholes or cheat on their taxes if they thought their children would be denied admission to elite high schools and colleges because their reported income was too low.

In the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, a "soothsayer" warned Caesar to "Beware the Ides of March," or March 15. In New York City this year the Ides of March fell on a Friday and was the day the Department of Education sent out acceptance notices for its specialized high schools where admission is based on one-shot high stakes tests.

In 2012, a federal civil rights complaint charging bias in the New York City specialized high school application process was brought against the city by a number of Civil Rights organizations. They charged that "racial disparities" in admission to the city's select high schools resulted "in large part from admissions policies that rely too heavily or even exclusively on standardized tests" and on a "marked failure to provide African Americans and Latinos with opportunities to learn the material or otherwise prepare to meet the admissions standards."

As recently as 1999, the student body at prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School was about one-quarter African American, but since then the percentage has dropped to about ten percent. There has been a similar decline at Stuyvesant High School where the percentage of Black students dropped from nearly 13% Black in 1979 to about 1% now.

Once again, in 2013, the number of African American and Latino students admitted to the selective high schools fell sharply. According to a report on the website Gotham Schools, "Of the 5,229 students accepted to the city's eight specialized high schools this year, 618 were black or Hispanic, according to data the Department of Education released today, the day that eighth-graders learned their high school placement. Last year, the schools accepted 733 black and Hispanic students." The figures were most disturbing at Stuyvesant High School where just nine African American and twenty-four Latino students were admitted. Meanwhile, at Brooklyn Tech, the number of African American and Latino students who were admitted dropped by twenty-two percent.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has consistently defended the admission procedure claiming these selective high schools were "designed for the best and the brightest" and that he saw no need to change the admissions policy or state law. The Mayor declared, "I think that Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be . . . There's nothing subjective about this. You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school -- no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is. That's been the tradition in these schools since they were founded, and it's going to continue to be."

However, another recent report cast serious doubts on whether the high school admission test identified the "best and brightest" as the mayor claimed. According to an article by Al Baker in The New York Times, "Girls Excel in the Classroom but Lag in Entry to 8 Elite Schools in the City."

According to Baker, "In the United States, girls have outshined boys in high school for years, amassing more A's, earning more diplomas and gliding more readily into college, where they rack up more degrees -- whether at the bachelor's, master's or doctoral levels."

But when it comes to admission to New York City's selective high schools, boys make up about sixty percent of the students at the most prestigious schools. In 2013, fifty-one percent of the middle school students who took the Specialized High School Admissions Test were girls, but girls made up only forty-five percent of the students who were admitted to the schools.

This is surprising for two reasons. Nationally, enrollment in highly competitive high schools is fifty-five percent female. In addition, when schools use multiple criteria for admission, including school performance, girls do significantly better than boys. The Times reported that at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, where admission is based on grades, auditions, and portfolios, the study body is nearly three-quarters female. Other elite programs that weigh-in school performance in their admission process have similar population imbalances favoring girls. At Bard, Millennium, Beacon, and Townsend Harris high schools girls outnumber boys by at least three to two. The principal at Bard said he has had to work to find ways to recruit more qualified male students.

If girls are in general better students, why are the high-stakes test schools disproportionally male?

The best answer I can come up with is that the admission test, which is designed by Pearson, does not accurately measure the ability to perform in high school at the highest levels. More likely, the results reflect a decision by immigrant families to invest in their sons by paying for them to take expensive test prep classes at private cram schools where tuition costs can run to thousands of dollars. Students who do not have access to these courses, because they are girls, from poorer families, or African American and Latino, are then discriminated against by the testing process.

If this is the case, and I strongly suspect it is, we are once again looking at money as the key to success, not desire to excel or performance in school.

Following my previous post on Pearson, "Enough is Enough: Pearson Fails the Test Again and Again," I received an email from Dr. Alexey Kuptsov, a Professor of Mathematics at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. Dr. Kuptsov wrote that according to "Pearson they fixed the calculations and re-reviewed the scoring system used" when they corrected the "scoring errors" on this year's New York City of tests for admission into the "Gifted and Talented." However Dr. Kuptsov believes "Pearson fixed only part of the problem: they recalculated scores on NYC children who took the test. Together with recalculating NYC kids' scores, Pearson should have updated the scores of same-aged peers in the nationwide sample of students who took these tests. If their scores have the same errors that the scores of NYC kids had, it would imply the percentile ranks are flawed. Moreover, intuitively it seems to be exactly what's happening as we see a massive unexpected increase in the number of NYC children who scored 99 percentile.

Dr. Kuptsov said that he "tried contacting Pearson directly but they are not particularly
cooperative, they just referred me to the NYC DOE and asked to initiate the inquiry through them which is rather time consuming. But the problem is very urgent and DOE plans to release new updated scores."

I am not a statistician or an expert in this aspect of student assessment so I consulted a colleague, Dr. Bruce Torff, the director of the doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction at Hofstra University. Bruce agrees with Dr. Kuptsov's appraisal of the situation, feeling "if the grading was flawed in NYC, it likely it is for the norm group also. Fixing that might not move the needle much, but there's a chance it would." He was also "not surprised Pearson is in stonewall mode. They have a lot to stonewall." He continued, "As taxpayers we pay for the tests the state administers, but yet they will not let us see the data to evaluate the psychometric utility of the tests. I understand why the CIA works in secret; they have national security concerns. But the only agenda served by NYSED secrecy is their own reputation, which they know would be destroyed if people found out how questionable their tests are. We should demand transparency for the tests we fund."