Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rochester school board asks why kids saw social studies exam questions early

David Andreatta • Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle Staff writer with lots of reader comments
July 22, 2008

Backpedaling under pressure from its board, the Rochester School District announced Monday that it would investigate why thousands of seventh- and eighth-grade students were prepped for their final social studies exams last month with dozens of questions that appeared on the actual tests.

District officials had initially defended the practice of sharing exam questions with students in advance, calling it a legitimate form of test preparation. But that prompted Board of Education members and the teachers union to call for an investigation of the matter and the district's testing review protocol.

Marilynn Patterson-Grant, the deputy superintendent for instruction, acknowledged in a statement Monday that the matter warranted examination.

"This issue illustrates the need for a critical examination of our current practices and policies around student assessments, and for a system of accountability at all levels and across all subject areas," Patterson-Grant said.

"The (district) will launch an immediate investigation of the development and administration of the seventh- and eighth-grade social studies assessments and review materials, and take appropriate action."

The investigation came after the controversial test-prep method and the district's defense were first reported in the Democrat and Chronicle on Sunday and as Board of Education commissioners demanded action.

"I obviously want to get the full story on exactly what went down," said school board President Malik Evans, who called for an investigation earlier in the day.

"The Board of Education takes the integrity of student assessments and protocols very seriously."

Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is on his honeymoon and could not be reached for comment. He is expected to return at the end of the month.

The disclosed multiple-choice questions and their answers were printed in review materials produced by Paul Lampe, the district's director of social studies, who also approved the exams.

The reviews included all 40 multiple-choice questions on the eighth-grade exam and 24 of the 40 on the seventh-grade test. The questions were each worth one point, and the exams were each worth 100 points. The exams accounted for 25 percent of the students' final grades in the courses.

Lampe previously said he had intended to scramble the review questions and their answers, which appeared in the same sequence in the reviews as on the tests, but he defended introducing students to the questions beforehand.

His response did not satisfy school board Vice President Van Henri White, who called the stance "a mistake at best, and at worst a serious error in academic judgment."

"The problem with that response is that even the scrambling of questions and answers doesn't ensure that our children are anything but good memorizers," White said. "I want reassurances going forward that everyone views these tests, high-stakes or low-stakes, as being honest."

District officials could not say how many of the 4,329 students who took the exams were prepped with the review materials, which were intended to be presented in class by teachers using a slide show produced with PowerPoint software.

The study guides were not meant to be taken home by students, and it is unclear how many students, if any, were given hard copies of the slide show.

Some board members expressed concern that the district's initial apparent indifference to the matter suggested that similar forms of test preparation are ubiquitous.

"My concern is whether this is more widespread and what it says about the cultural malaise that the district suffers from," said board member Thomas Brennan.

"If it is more widespread, I think people should lose their jobs over this."

The district requires seventh- and eighth-graders to take exams in four subject areas: English, math, science and social studies.

Because only the English and math exams are used to determine whether students should be promoted to the next grade, invalidating the social studies exams wouldn't affect students.

The passing rate for the social studies exam was 50 percent in the seventh grade, up 6 percentage points from last year, and 56 percent in the eighth grade, an increase of 5 percentage points from a year ago.

"The district has to get to the bottom of this, determine what happened, and announce what measure they have taken to ensure that it won't happen again," said Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski. "I think the credibility of the district is at stake."

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