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Reflections on the Test

After months of work and a fair amount of anxiety, test day finally arrived yesterday. As usual I did my best to calm the nerves of my students, and refreshingly, for the first time I didn’t have to calm my own.

I assured the kids that they were completely prepared, and reminded them of all the strategies they had learned to make the state reading test easier. I handed out keychains from my trip to California and told the kids they were good luck charms. I could see the kids loosening up. And finally when I told the kids that the practice test they had taken Friday was actually a fourth-grade exam I knew their confidence was boosted.

Once the test began I knew that I had been telling the kids the truth. They really were prepared, probably better prepared than any class I’ve taught before. I saw the kids highlighting important details, circling the title, writing notes in the margins, and highlighting clues in the questions. These were the types of techniques I avoided teaching, because I hated the idea of teaching to the test. While I still believe in that philosophy, I also believe that these strategies were worthwhile. The kids need coping mechanisms for the stressful, unnatural setting of the test.

What struck me most about today was the not the students, but the test itself. It seemed strangely … easy. After months of worrying that we would get some sort of curve ball because of the new test date (previously the reading test has always been in early January), the test was surprisingly fair. More than fair, it seemed more or else the same as past years.

There was one passage I specifically recognized from a book in our classroom library. I looked it up later and found that the book was a level K. A level K is an early second-grade reading level. By contrast, at this point in the year, my students should be reading at a level N or O, considered mid-to-late third-grade levels. While it’s possible that the questions following the text could be tougher, it didn’t seem that way to me. The questions looked like the usual mix of cause and effect, sequence, drawing conclusions, main idea, and author’s purpose. In any case it seemed strange to me that an exam designed to place students at below, approaching, at, or above grade level, would use a text below grade level.

To be fair to the test makers and the state I decided to do a little extra research. I couldn’t use Fountas and Pinnell, the leveling system in place for classroom libraries, for past tests so instead I used the Flesch-Kincaid readability score. Using Flesch-Kincaid, this year’s test (or rather one passage from this year’s test) stood up much better, scoring 3.1, which indicates that it’s solidly on an early-third-grade reading level. The Flesch-Kincaid readability scores of the three non-poem passages from last year’s exam were 1.8, 1.7 and 1.4. In 2008 the non-poetry passages scored 2.1, 3.9 (!) and 2.6. In 2007 the scores were 3.2, 2.4 and 1.6. Finally, in 2006 the readability scores for the passages I was able to find were 1.4 and 1.2.

With such a sample size it’s difficult to draw any clear conclusions. The Flesch-Kincaid score also isn’t necessarily the best indicator of grade-level difficulty, but it’s a good one. Without knowing the score of the other passages (I also found it odd there was no poem this year) from this year’s test it’s also tough to say how the overall 2010 exam compares to past exams. One thing does seem clear: With a few exceptions, the reading passages are between one and two grades below level in difficulty. Let’s keep that in mind if/when this year’s scores come out and there’s the usual rush to congratulate ourselves on the number of students performing at or above grade level.

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