My older daughter came home last week, after taking a New York State ELA (English Language Arts) statewide exam. Normally after she takes a test, she mentions whether the test was easy or hard and what, if any, were the areas that give her difficulty. This time it was different. She complained about a reading passage concerning a race between a pineapple (that did not move) and a hare. She indicated that the passage made little sense and that the questions/answers made even less sense. I actually thought she was overreacting until I saw a copy of the passage and the questions in the newspapers and on the internet. The paragraph was inane and the questions had no logical answers. Ultimately New York State agreed, and will not count this question in the scoring of the exam.
My younger daughter’s elementary school New York State ELA took place over three days with a ninety minute exam each day. The exam also started the day the spring vacation ended. Not even a school day in between for the kids to adjust to being back in school. Why does an exam like this need three days and a ninety minute exam time each day? There was also a question on the math assessment for 4th graders that had two correct answers as well as an 8th grade math assessment question that had no correct answers. Not good on any count.
Exams are necessary. Evaluating students is necessary. We need to be able to measure a student’s learning on a regular basis and use the results to continuously enhance the education that is provided. But there are very substantial costs if the exam is nonsensical in part or if the exam is overly stress inducing. The first and most obvious cost is the loss of confidence by both parents and educators in the government entity that oversees the exam process. Can bad questions really measure learning? Can questions without correct answers or with multiple correct answers really measure learning? Or instead, when a student is told to select the correct answer, will this just serve to confuse the student? And will three days of testing of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders measure learning or, even more, seriously stress out the students? How many of us, when we were in third grade, would have the sitting power, patience and perseverance to handle an exam that long for that many days?
But the real cost is a potential loss of the love for learning on the part of our kids. What we all want from education is not only a knowledge base but also a respect for the importance of lifetime learning. If the questions and answers make little sense, if the exam stresses out young kids, and if the end result is a dislike for school and for education we have done a huge disservice. This is a time for corrective action. We need to rethink some of our exams and even more importantly some of our exam philosophies.