New Jersey State Exam Asks Third-Graders to Reveal a Secret

Have a secret you want to get off your chest? You're the perfect candidate for this elementary school exam.

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Seriously, educators: what is up with our standardized tests these days? 

Already this year we’ve had talking pineapples and nonsensical math problems.  Now, a New Jersey statewide test asked third-graders to write about a secret that they found hard to keep, according to the Associated Press.

Richard Goldberg, the father of 9-year-old twin boys, was appalled that his sons were asked such an invasive question on a test.

“All of the sudden, you have in a sense Big Brother checking out the secrets of families,” he said. So much for the standard, what was your favorite vacation and why question.

MORE: The Case of the ‘Talking Pineapple,’ the Reading-Comprehension Test Stumper

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test, an organization that advocates for transparent standardized exams, thinks that the question did more harm than good.

“What if the deep dark secret is molestation, or that your parents are about to get divorced? What kind of mind set is a child left with for the rest of the exam?” he told NJ.com. “This kind of serious error can make standardized tests even less useful than they normally are.”

Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College doesn’t find the question particularly troubling. Students at this age, she says, aren’t likely to reveal something very personal about their families or bare their souls. “I think by and large, kids are not going to tell a real secret,” she said.

But this school of thought poses two problems. What if students tell a secret that reveals a crime? What are authorities supposed to do with that information? And as Engel says, students could reveal something that may or may not actually be true — cf. Lillian Helman’s The Children’s Hour so how are authorities supposed to decipher  what’s real and what’s fictional? Secondly, even if students at this age aren’t likely to write about something very personal, the question may still trigger memories  of a disturbing secret, with negative effects on students’ test-taking abilities.

Justin Barra, a spokesman for New Jersey’s state Education Department, told the AP he did not know what scorers would do if a crime was revealed. He declined to provide the exact wording of the question, stating that some students who were absent had yet to take their makeup tests.

The question, which was “field-tested” on roughly 4,000 students in 15 districts across the state, will not be seen on future versions of the test.

MORE: A Brief History of Standardized Testing

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