‘Secret’ question to no longer be on N.J. standardized tests

TRENTON, N.J. –New Jersey education officials no longer will use a standardized test question that asked third-graders to reveal a secret and write about why it was difficult to keep.

The question appeared on the writing portion of some versions of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge given to third-graders last week. It drew criticism from some parents, who thought it was inappropriate.

Richard Goldberg, a Marlboro dentist, was appalled when he asked his twin 9-year-old sons about the New Jersey test and they told him about the question, which state officials say was given to about 4,000 students as a tryout.

“All of the sudden, you have, in a sense, Big Brother checking out the secrets of families,” Goldberg said.

So much for essays about how it was hard not to tell Mom about her surprise birthday party.

Goldberg felt the question ventured into topics that would best be kept quiet and that it could raise some serious complications: What would test-graders do if the secret revealed has to do with a crime? And why would that question be asked anyway?

The state Department of Education said the question was reviewed and approved by it and a panel of teachers. They said it was only being tried out and would not count in the students’ scores.

But after further review, Department of Education spokesman Justin Barra said the question won’t be included in future tests.

Barra said about 4,000 students in 15 districts had the question.

Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams University, said the question doesn’t sound troubling to her. Asking about secrets is a good way to get children to write, she said. And, she said, children at that age are unlikely to say something that would offend their families, or even bare their own souls.

“I think by and large, kids are not going to tell a real secret,” Engel said.

In a world where standardized tests are becoming a bigger part of education – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among others, wants the results to be a factor in teachers’ pay – the exams themselves are getting more scrutiny.

Barra said the question itself was being tested and that it was vetted for appropriateness by both the department and a panel of teachers. He also said that while the department has fielded calls from several journalists, officials have not had many complaints from parents.

As for Goldberg’s boys, one wrote about the time Richard Goldberg took the boys out of school for a day of skiing – and worried that he might get in trouble for admitting to playing hooky.