Fact Sheet

New Jersey's 'reveal a secret' third-grade test question: The fallout

Parents complain after kids are asked to share something they're hiding. Is that an inappropriate question for a standardized test?

State education officials in New Jersey got an earful from parents recently after third graders were given a standardized test question asking them to reveal a secret and explain why it was hard to keep. Several parents complained that the question was inappropriate for 8-year-olds. The state Department of Education reviewed the test, and agreed, promising that the question wouldn't be used in the future. How did such a controversial question wind up on a standardized test in the first place? Here's what you should know:

How many kids answered this question?
The question appeared on the tests of about 4,000 third graders in 15 districts. Since it was a new question being tried out to see if it should be included on future versions of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, the controversial prompt wasn't given to all third graders, and didn't count toward any students scores. The trial question had been reviewed and approved by the Department of Education and a panel of teachers.

Why did parents find the question so objectionable?
Richard Goldberg, whose 9-year-old twin sons told him about the question, said it was "outrageous" and "totally inappropriate" for school children. "I guarantee you some children will be writing things family members and parents would have rather not revealed to the state," he said.

How do education experts feel?
They're split. Susan Engel, director of the teaching program at Williams University, says asking about secrets might inspire kids to write, and that most "kids are not going to tell a real secret." But the question could get them thinking about a "deep dark secret," such as child molestation or their parents' looming divorce, says Bob Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test, so it's "idiotic" to even ask. "What kind of mindset is a child left with for the rest of the exam?" he asked. "This kind of serious error can make standardized tests even less useful than they normally are."

How big of a deal is this?
It depends who you ask. But undoubtedly, standardized tests have taken on an increasingly important role in public education in recent years. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, wants the results to be a factor in teachers' pay. And thanks to their newfound influence, tests are being scrutinized more closely than ever. Last month, for instance, New York education officials faced a backlash after eighth graders were given a baffling exam about a hare and a talking pineapple.

Sources: Asbury Park Press, Associated Press, CBS News, Newark Star-Ledger

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