New Jersey Exam Asks 3rd Grade Kids to Detail Secrets

A writing prompt on an NJ exam administered to 3rd graders asked kids to detail a secret they’ve had trouble keeping, confusing students and outraging parents.

It seemed like a promising writing prompt: write about a secret you’ve had difficulty keeping and explain why. But for third grade students who got the question as part of their writing requirement on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, it crossed a line. Richard Goldberg, a dentist and a parent of twin sons who took the exam this past week, said that asking about secrets strays too far into the private lives of families and can not only reveal information best kept secret, has the potential to create problems for both the students and their families.

Once the parents started voicing concerns after the completion of the exam, the state’s Department of Education was quick to reassure the public that the it was simply being “field-tested” this year, and the answer will not reflect on the children’s final grade. Still, when that statement failed to tempt down dissatisfaction, Justin Barra, the department’s spokesman said that it will be dropped from future tests.

“We’ve looked at this question in light of concerns raised by parents, and it is clear that this is not an appropriate question for a state test,” Barra said, adding that about 4,000 students in 15 districts had the question.

Part of the problem is the department’s refusal to disclose both on which districts’ tests the question appeared nor its exact wording. Although the Department of Education officials said that the question was thoroughly vetted by a panel of teachers, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test, a group that has long lobbied against high-stakes standardized testing, still said it was entirely out of line.

“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?” Schaeffer said. “This kind of serious error can make standardized tests even less useful than they normally are.”

Questions that dealt with emotional issues generally were eliminated from standardized tests more than a decade ago, he said.

However, Susan Engel, the director of the teaching program at Williams University and a lecturer in psychology, thought the furor and apprehension about the question are misguided. She said that after the recent New York controversy over exam questions that were completely detached from reality, the test writers were probably looking for a relatable topic on which students would be able to write easily and with enthusiasm. It’s unlikely, she added, that kids were going to disclose anything very serious during the exam.

Goldberg, however, disagrees saying that he isn’t the only one who found the “tell a secret” directive to be inappropriate. He says that after reaching out to other students and parents on Facebook and other social media, he found many who agreed with his point of view, even though most students, as Engel expected, didn’t reveal anything serious or traumatic.

He said his sons were challenged by the question because they wanted to answer honestly, but also did not want to reveal something that would get them in trouble.

“My one boy wrote about a broken ceiling fan that Dad knew about, buy maybe Mom did not,” Goldberg said. “Other parents told me their kids just made stuff up.”

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