March 02, 2005

Asking questions about the NJ ASK

Fascinating discussion going on over at The Art Of Getting By (via The Education Wonks):

As if 9 week "assessments" weren't enough, my poor little third graders spend the entire year eating, sleeping and breathing the same mantra, "THE TEST IS COMING! THE TEST IS COMING!" Meanwhile, us teachers feel like the little engine that could's engineers repeating, "I THINK THEY CAN, I THINK THEY CAN..."

The test I am speaking of is the NJ Ask. It's this huge standardized test a la, the SAT's for eight year olds. So, before they even know how to write in cursive, these kids know all about anxiety. The NJ Ask is supposed to be a formal assessment of all skills the average third grader should be, at the very least, proficient in. It covers everything from from multiplication and division, to decoding and writing to a prompt. I think they might even ask kids for a recipe for how to make a good gumbo, I'm not really sure.

Some of the comments devolve into the usual Bush-bashing, but others are thoughtful concerns about over-testing students - and at least one parent likes the tests. Unlike many people, I believe the tests are a good thing, but like many testing opponents, I believe it's possible to have too much of a good thing. This teacher's school tests kids formally every nine weeks, and I think it's acceptable to question whether that's appropriate.

So what is the NJ ASK, anyway? It's a measure to see how well the state's third- and fourth-graders are "learning the knowledge and skills called for by the state’s academic standards, the Core Curriculum Content Standards." I found this presentation on the NJ ASK.

I also found sample math items online. Does it look difficult? Yes, it does, although I can't say "too difficult," because I'm not a content specialist in this area. But it troubles me that the math items are so wordy. For example:

Estimate 423 – 174. The difference is between which numbers?

A. 0 and 199
B. 200 and 399
C. 400 and 599
D. 600 and 799

I''m wondering why estimating to get a range is important here. Why not just ask them:

423 - 174 = _____

Also, unless they're giving them partial credit for "good" wrong answers when scoring, there's not much to be gained by making this type of item an MCQ. Of course, MCQ's do allow students to guess.

The open-ended sample item is:

A juice machine charges 65˘ for a can of juice and accepts only nickels, dimes, and quarters. The machine requires exact change.

•Show a combination of coins you could put in the juice machine to get a can of juice.
•Is there another combination of coins you could use to get a can of juice? Show your work and explain your answer.

To be honest, I'm confused by "show a combination." Does that mean list the coins by name? List the amounts? Draw the coins? Perhaps it means all three, but what's wrong with "What is one combination of nickels, dimes, and quarters that could you use to buy one can? Is there another combination?" It's a good construct to test - certainly, it's got real-life applications - but as I neither teach nor have third-graders, I can't say for certain if this seems like something they should be able to do.

(Amusing side anecdote: One time in graduate school, an officemate of mine - who was notoriously ignorant about children - mortally offended another student's precocious 9-year-old daughter when first he asked her if she could put coins in the drink machine all by herself, then asked her if she was able to read the button labels all on her own. There is no huffiness like that of a capable 9-year-old girl.)

Posted by kswygert at March 2, 2005 05:57 PM