NJ test asks 3rd graders to reveal a secret

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By GEOFF MULVIHILL, Associated Press

Some New Jersey parents are steamed about a question on a statewide standardized test this week that asked some third-graders to write about a secret and why it was hard to keep.

Richard Goldberg, a Marlboro dentist, was appalled when he asked his twin 9-year-old sons about the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge and they told him about the question, which state officials say was given to about 4,000 students as a tryout.

"All of the sudden, you have in a sense Big Brother checking out the secrets of families," he said.

So much for essays about how it was hard not to tell Mom about her surprise birthday party.

Goldberg felt the question ventured into topics that would best be kept quiet, and that it could raise some serious complications: What would test-graders do if the secret revealed has to do with a crime? And why would that question be asked anyway? New Jersey's state Education Department is reviewing what happened.

Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams University, said the question doesn't sound troubling to her. Asking about secrets is a good way to get children to write, she said. And, she said, children at that age are unlikely to say something that would offend their families, or even bare their own souls. "I think by and large, kids are not going to tell a real secret," she said.

In a world where standardized tests are becoming a bigger part of education — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others, wants the results to be a factor in teachers' pay — the exams themselves are getting more scrutiny.

Last month, New York education officials said they would not score six multiple-choice questions about a passage from an eighth-grade reading exam about a hare and a talking pineapple after complaints that the passage, and the questions about it, did not make sense. And later, they acknowledged finding errors on math tests given to fourth- and eighth-graders.

Justin Barra, spokesman for New Jersey's state Education Department, said the state is looking into who wrote the "secret" question.

He said the question itself is being tested and that it was vetted for appropriateness by both the department and a panel of teachers. He said it was given in 15 districts to about 4 percent of the third-graders statewide who took the exam. Like other experimental questions, the answers will not count toward students' scores.

He also said that while the department has fielded calls from several journalists, officials have not had many complaints from parents.

Barra said he did not know whether the fact that the question was revealed in public would keep it off future tests — or what scorers would do if a crime was revealed. He said he could not say where the question was given or provide the exact wording because some students who were absent still must take makeup tests.

A further complication may be that at least some teachers tell their students that they can make up their answers if they don't have real-life examples to give. What matters, the teachers say, is the form of the writing, not whether what they say is true.

As for Goldberg's boys, he said one wrote about breaking a ceiling fan and not telling his dad. The other wrote about the time Goldberg took the boys out of school for a day of skiing — and worried that he might get in trouble for admitting to playing hooky.

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