June 19, 2012
For some students, final exams administered on Monday posed an extra challenge.
Months after a spate of errors on the state’s elementary and middle school exams caused parents and educators to charge that test-makers are held to lower standards than its teachers or students, more mistakes have come to light. This time the errors are on high school foreign language exams developed by the city Department of Education.
This year, local districts were required for the first time to create the foreign language exams that students can take to fulfill graduation requirements. The state had produced Regents exams in several languages in the past but eliminated them in a cost-cutting move last year.
Department of Education officials said the new requirement would be easy to meet because the city already created tests for less commonly studied languages such as Hebrew and Chinese. But when students sat down to take French and Spanish exams on Monday, errors quickly became apparent.
Students who took the French exam were asked a multiple-choice question with more than one correct answer. In one part of the Spanish exam, students were asked to choose two out of three questions to answer, but only given two options. And a printing error meant that the rubric students were supposed to use when structuring their essay on the Spanish language exam was missing.
Directions supplied by the city explained that the rubric would arrive separately from the regular test booklets. But students did not receive the rubric until after the test, said Arthur Goldstein, an English as a second language teacher and union chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School, meaning that they had to complete the essay without knowing exactly how they would be assessed.
Jelani Brown, a student at Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice, did not take the Spanish test this week. But she said she had taken exams with writing rubrics before — and can’t imagine completing the exam without them.
“You would just have to put 80 extra points on my test, because I wouldn’t know how much to write or what order to put it in,” she said.
The city released guidance about the errors and issued changes to the scoring key for Spanish, French, and Chinese exams shortly before teachers began to grade them.
But Goldstein said foreign language teachers at his school reported other mistakes that the city had not acknowledged. A Spanish teacher noted that all the answers in a question about bananas, which takes the feminine case in Spanish, were in the masculine case. A French teacher noticed one question used the English word “and” rather than the French “et.” And a Chinese teacher came to Goldstein with concerns about how to score a question that included a grammatical error.
“My best advice to her would be to follow the marking guidelines and cover herself, because they make mistakes, but if you don’t follow directions, it could be your fault,” Goldstein said. “It’s a tough line to walk when you speak the language better than the people who write the tests.”
Students have long taken achievement tests in foreign languages. But they have never been required for graduation. Now, with a new teacher evaluation system that takes student performance into account on the horizon, the stakes attached to the tests could increase for foreign language teachers.