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On April 17-19, 2012, students across New York State took the English Language Arts (ELA) test. In a fail of epic proportions, a poorly constructed set of test questions was thrown out after an unnamed insider leaked that portion of the exam. You can read the original test question at the New York State Education Department web site.
For a little background, this section of the test included a brief story and six follow-up questions. The text was adapted from part of a novel by author Daniel Pinkwater. (You can read his comments and the original tale here and here.) Teachers and other NYSED employees are not allowed to discuss the test questions or publish them, online or elsewhere. One bold individual shared the question, setting off a chain reaction of events which ultimately resulted in the question set being thrown out.
From the glut of news articles on the Pineapple Debacle, one might get the impression that the problem here is one badly-worded question on a state test. There’s discussion about whether or not we can trust any of the test questions if one like that slipped through. While it’s true that the story is full of grammatical errors and bears no resemblance to the original, and the questions are poorly worded and intentionally misleading, those are not the real issues.
The problem is that transparency has been eliminated at all levels. By refusing to allow educators to discuss the questions, even with colleagues, teachers cannot collaborate to ensure quality in state evaluations. Parents are not informed about the content of the tests their children are taking, leading to broken trust when something like this surfaces. If we’re going to base our children’s success as students on whether or not they can navigate pineapple-style questions, and we base teachers’ worth as educators on how well they teach to the test, then we need everyone to be certain that the tests are an accurate measure. The consequences of failure here are dire.
This isn’t a problem limited to New York State. The rising panic over standards in education, pass/fail rates, and global competition are driving this push for education that “proves” success. The pressure on schools and teachers is immense. And why wouldn’t it be? If a school is on the watch list for school improvement, there are a limited number of options: Close the school permanently; close the school and reopen under a charter, or privatize; fire half the staff; or submit to a somewhat nebulous “improvement” campaign, which also results in at least some degree of job loss. Every school in every district in the country is potentially at risk. For that reason alone, it’s imperative that we have as much integrity in the exams as possible. A single bad question on a state test won’t cause much trouble. A bad test surely would. Without transparency, there’s no way to know whether the rest of the test is equally bizarre or whether it was a single oversight.
Whoever blew the whistle on the pineapple question is my hero. It doesn’t take a lot of guts for me to sit here and write about the New York ELA test. There’s nothing at stake for me. But that brave individual put his or her job on the line in order that the rest of us might be informed. Those of us who are invested in public education, whether as employees or as parents, have a responsibility here. We must stand together and demand that we have the right to know what goes on at the state Education Department. We must take action and force lawmakers to recognize the flaws in the system. We can’t afford not to.