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Steiner calls for state math tests to become less predictable

Reacting to differences between the state’s own testing data and the results of a national math assessment, Commissioner David Steiner called for the state to review and redesign its tests to make the questions less predictable.

“The New York State NAEP scores in mathematics, released today, are of great concern to the Board of Regents and to me,” Steiner wrote in a statement. “We are struck by the contrast between results on the NAEP and on New York State’s own math tests.”

The call from Steiner is the strongest language a state education official has used since critics began challenging the state tests in 2007.

According to state tests, New York State’s fourth and eighth grade students’ math scores have dramatically increased in the last two years, but the national report card shows there have been no significant gains. This year, fourth graders’ average scores on the state exam rose by 9 points, while eighth grader’s average scores rose by 18 points. But the national report card shows fourth graders’ scores dropping by two points, while eighth grade students’ rose by three points.

Critics of the state’s tests have said that the questions have become repetitive and that teachers are able to predict what subject areas the test will focus on, drilling their students in some topics to the exclusion of others.

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, said predictability and a narrow range of topics could open the state tests up to score inflation and cause the discrepancy in testing data.

“The most likely interpretation from my point of view is that the New York state tests are really not telling us what we think they are about kids’ mathematics proficiency,” Pallas said. “I’m more willing to believe NAEP, which is very well studied and developed.”

In a statement, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew echoed the concern that “teaching to the test” has had an impact.

“The NAEP results also bear out what our members have been saying for years — too much of their time has been spent on preparing students for these state tests rather than on real learning,” Mulgrew said.

If the city’s fourth grade math scores follow the same trend as the state’s numbers, which fell modestly, Chancellor Joel Klein’s reforms could come in for heavy questioning. At a presentation he gave before the city’s business leaders, Klein bet his legacy on the fourth grade math scores.

“Results from fourth grade include more students who began school under mayoral control. In many respects, the fourth-grade math results show what New York City is capable of achieving in all grades in the coming years,” he said.

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