Watching his third-graders struggle every year with New Hampshire's state test made Mr. Gould wonder whether the problem might lie in the test items themselves -- and in the very idea of testing children at such a young age.
MY THIRD-GRADE class was in the final day of taking New Hampshire's state test. The students were working on the mathematics section, and most didn't seem to be having much trouble filling in the multiple-choice boxes. Then I noticed that one student was looking around. She would look down at her paper, then look toward her neighbor on the left. Look down again, then look toward her neighbor on the right. I headed for her desk. This was not her style. She was a highly capable student. What was compelling her to look at her neighbors' work? Was she cheating?
As I approached her desk, I realized that she was crying. I knelt beside her. "What's the trouble?" I asked softly.
"I don't know how to do this problem," she whispered through her tears.
She had read the open-response question and couldn't even start trying to figure out an answer. In desperation, she had looked around and discovered that everyone else was already beyond her question. She knew she was one of the smartest students in the class; everyone else did too. Shaken, she'd asked herself, "Why can't I do a problem everyone else has finished?" Of course, what she didn't realize was that the other students didn't have a clue that they didn't know how to do the problem. They had simply written an answer and moved on.
Penelope Leach writes in her book about raising stable children, "Middle childhood [third grade] calls on the adult world to account for itself, and much of what it sees and hears will remain in conscious memory, or easily available to it, through adolescence and into adulthood."1 Would this 8-year- old carry this trauma with her into adulthood? My own school experience suggested that she might. So, contrary to the testing rules, I pointed her in the right direction. And I began to look at this assessment with new concerns.
Ten years earlier, I had served on the committee that wrote the New Hampshire Curriculum Frameworks for Third-Grade Language Arts. A separate committee wrote frameworks for mathematics at the same time. One of the purposes of these frameworks was to provide a base from which to create statewide assessment instruments. At the time, we were pleased when educational leaders considered our frameworks "state of the art."
Once the frameworks were adopted, the state department hired a testing firm to develop the assessment package, which became the New Hampshire Educational Improvement and Assessment Program (NHEIAP). Also innovative at the time, the test included multiple-choice and open-response items and a writing sample. New questions are added each year, so some test items can be released to the public. Part of the continuing process of test development involves a committee of volunteer educators meeting several times a year to choose passages, write test questions, and revise material for the next year's test. Until I retired from the classroom in 2001, I served as a member of the committee that worked on the third-grade language arts test.
For a number of years, New Hampshire students in grades 3, 6, and 10 have been tested in the spring, with test results released the following fall. At the time of my retirement, these tests were not attached to "high stakes" in the sense that the allocation of state education funding did not depend on their results. However, a recent mandate from the New Hampshire Supreme Court requires the legislature to find an equitable, statewide method to fund an adequate public education.2 When the legislature meets that responsibility and provides state tax money -- instead of mostly local taxes -- to pay for education, an accounting will also be demanded. That and the dictates of the new No Child Left Behind Act will mean that high-stakes testing will come to New Hampshire. …