3rd-grade standardized test asks students to reveal a personal secret

posted at 6:01 pm on May 13, 2012 by Howard Portnoy

Seriously now, how hard is to write questions for third-graders that don’t (a) address creepy topics like cannibalism, (b) ask how many slaves it would take to pick an orchard clean, or (c) intrude on their and their family’s privacy by asking them to write about a secret they had trouble keeping? The answer obviously is (d) very.

Choices a and b were the stuff of math homework assignments earlier this year in schools in D.C. and Georgia, respectively, while c appeared on a statewide standardized test in New Jersey just this week. The test, given to 4,000 students, was a dry run for the Garden State’s Assessment of Skills and Knowledge.

The website NJ.com reports that one parent, Richard Goldberg of Marlboro, was appalled when he asked his 9-year-old twin sons about the exam and was told about the question, which required an essay. One of the boys wrote about breaking a ceiling fan and not telling his dad (presumably until now). The other wrote about the time Goldberg took them out of school on false pretenses for a day of skiing!

“All of a sudden,” Goldberg told reporters, “you have in a sense Big Brother checking out the secrets of families.” He added that the question has the potential to open up all manner of Pandora’s boxes. He asked, as a hypothetical, what action administrators might feel impelled to take it the secret divulged had to do with a criminal act.

The Associated Press quotes Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams University, who said the question isn’t 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,’ she said.

That reaction begs the question of what to do in the case where children do reveal real secrets—and closely guarded ones at that.

Justin Barra, a spokesman for New Jersey’s state Education Department, said the state planned to look into who wrote the “secret” question. In the meantime, since the story first broke, the question has been scrapped. The Department of Ed has not said what was written in its place. Perhaps it is best not to ask.

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