50 % of middle school students still fail despite seeing test questions and answers

  of time.   This is shocking, and another example of dramatic reforms needed. 

Thousands of city school students got a sneak peek at dozens of questions on two exams last month — a scenario that has baffled testing experts, outraged local officials and raised concerns about the validity of the exams and the Rochester School District's method of test preparation.

The multiple-choice questions appeared in review materials produced by the district and issued to teachers to prep seventh- and eighth-graders for their final social-studies exams, one of four required district exams.

"I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like this unless there was a leak or an error, and I've been doing this for 35 years," said Joseph Pedulla, an associate professor of education and co-founder of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy at Boston College.


District officials could not say how many of the 4,329 students who took the exams had also participated in the review sessions or received copies of the materials. But those who did so were drilled on multiple-choice questions and answers that were identical to and presented in the same sequence as those on the tests.

In the case of the eighth-grade exam, all 40 multiple-choice questions covering a wide swath of 19th-century American history were on the review. On the seventh-grade exam, the disclosed questions comprised 24 of the 40 multiple-choice questions and focused on colonial American history.

Each of the exams totaled 100 points, and the multiple-choice questions were each worth one point. The exams, in turn, accounted for 25 percent of the final grade in each course.

"You want teachers to alert students to the type of questions and material they can expect to see on the test, but you don't want them to see the actual test items," said Pedulla, who examined copies of the review materials provided to him by the Democrat and Chronicle. "That destroys the validity of the exam."

District officials defended studying actual exam questions in advance of a test as a legitimate method of preparation and expressed little concern about the potential impact that repeated questions might have on the validity of the exam's results.

They noted that the final social-studies exams, unlike those for math and English, have no bearing on whether a student is promoted to the next grade.

Connie Leech, the district's supervisor for secondary schools, said the fact that the questions and their answers appeared in the same order on the review as the exam was "probably not in the best judgment" but added that she doubted any student could commit the order of so many questions to memory.

"I'm not concerned that it's a cheat," Leech said. "What we were doing is giving kids a better sense of the knowledge that they needed for the test. It's like giving them an open-book test. This isn't a Regents exam."

She said the district would not invalidate the tests, claiming the repeat questions accounted for too small a portion of the total points available.

Exactly half of the seventh-graders passed their exam, an increase of 6 percentage points over last year, according to the district. The passing rate in the eighth grade was 56 percent, compared with 51 percent a year earlier.

That the exams had relatively low stakes made little difference to critics.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, after learning of the review method from a reporter, labeled it "plain cheating" and called on the superintendent and school board to address it.

"I can't imagine anyone making a case for it," Urbanski said. "I wish I could say that I'm surprised. I am not surprised. I strongly suspect this is probably just the tip of the iceberg."

Not 'teaching to the test'

Individual schools in the district normally devise their own review materials for district exams, which are held in the mornings on consecutive days during the final week of school. But the district took the unusual step of assembling review guides this year to help secondary schools adjust to a superintendent directive to end a custom in which seventh- and eight-grade pupils had been allowed to leave school directly after taking their morning exam.

The purpose of the reviews for all the mandatory tests — English, math, science and social studies — was to help teachers pass the time and prep students for their tests. Using the reviews was optional.

Because the tests are secure until the day they are administered, neither teachers nor students were likely aware that the multiple-choice questions were repeated on the social studies exams.

Paul Lampe, the district's director of social studies who approved the exams and wrote the reviews, said he made a conscious decision to allow students to see the multiple-choice exam questions. None of the short-answer or diagram questions in other sections of the tests appeared in his reviews.

He explained that the study materials were intended to be reviewed in class in a Power Point presentation as a game, and that hard copies of the review should not have been made for students to take home.

Lampe acknowledged, though, that he had intended to scramble the order of the multiple-choice questions and their answers on the reviews with the computer program he used to generate them. He believed he had done that, he said, but could not say whether a human error or a computer malfunction kept it from happening.

He denied that the review could be interpreted as what is known in education circles as "teaching to the test," the practice of tailoring instruction to final exams with the aim of boosting scores.

"I'm very sensitive to that (teaching to the test)," Lampe said. "That was not the intention of this. The common practice is to review for a test with questions in the same format and with the language students are going to see. I don't think this goes into the argument of teaching to the test."

Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is on his honeymoon until the end of the month and could not be reached for comment.

'Weird,' 'unethical'

Accusations of teaching to the test have surfaced in school districts across the country with more frequency in the last decade as school systems place greater emphasis on test scores in the name of accountability.

Teachers have been particularly vocal about feeling pressured to engage in the practice, which they argue demeans their professionalism and cheats students of developing a broad base of knowledge in a subject area.

Federal and state laws mandating standardized tests, once largely confined to college entrance exams, have become integral parts of public education and, in many cases, sources of stress for parents, students and school administrators.



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It's sad how litlle kids today know about history, social studies, geography, govt & civics - and yet, the president of UT seems intent on destoying the arts & sciences dept. - causing much concern for students who are working on degrees in those areas, history, politcal science, the arts, etc. (wants to make UT more of a technical & medical college). I do understand that sometimes the brain freezes on some questions the person may actually know the answer to a day before - the tv show "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader' survives on that concept - where somebody with a Masters degree may guess wrong on a third grade history question. But the questions on these tests should be fresh in the kids minds - not things they've forgotten over the years. Very sad. What is also sad, is the large number of adults who do not know how many states this country has, or basic geography or civics. (that comment about not knowing how many states are in this country is not a dig about Obama - I realize he 'mis-spoke' (heh, heh) - but it's based on the question being asked on a radio show & people who guessed wrong).

Exactly half of the seventh-graders passed their exam, an increase of 6 percentage points over last year, according to the district. The passing rate in the eighth grade was 56 percent, compared with 51 percent a year earlier.

Define 'passed'. Because if by 'passed' they mean that students missed 19 or fewer out of 40 questions, that's one thing. If a passing grade is achieved with 37 correct answers out of 40, that's something else. Then we have this commentary: "It's outright weird," Schaeffer said. "There's a continuum of test-prep procedures that range from the ethical to the totally unethical, and it's generally viewed that preparing kids with identical questions is on the unethical end of the spectrum."

I don't believe this. Generally viewed? The unethical end of the spectrum? Why hasn't someone explained the black and white of the issue to this PC moron? More to the point, what parent would want this unethical end of the teacher's union instructing their child on any subject at all.

Mad Jack
Mad Jack's Shack

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