The fairness of the Terra Nova standardised test given to assess literacy and numeracy was brought into question by Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush last week during his contribution to the Budget debate.
The Terra Nova tests were given to government school students last May and returned what Minister of Education Alden McLaughlin called last month alarming and bad results with regard to literacy.
Mr. McLaughlin said the test results showed public school children started falling behind international standards in their literacy skills from grade two and that the gap widened as they got older.
Mr. Bush said Mr. McLaughlin made a grave mistake in reporting the results.
‘He gave a skewed report that failed to give any indication of the circumstances in which the test was administered.’
Mr. Bush noted that the test was administered only five months after children had returned to school after Hurricane Ivan.
‘As I understand it, teachers and principals were reluctant to have their students sit the test in the conditions they were studying in.’
In addition, Mr. Bush said the teachers and principles ‘never understood [the Terra Nova test] would be used to pass judgement on the students and the schools’.
Mr. Bush said that in Houston Hurricane Rita had caused students to miss 10 days of school last year, resulting in the Terra Nova test scores not being reported.
‘Many Cayman students missed more than 10 days of instruction, yet their test scores have been used to incriminate them,’ he said. ‘Yet in Houston, if students missed more than ten days of instruction, the test score weren’t used if they were lower.’
‘As far as I’m concerned, all they’re running is an old Animal Farm experiment using the children of this country.’
One of Mr. Bush’s main criticism concerned the fact that the students did not have ample time or ideal working conditions to study for the test.
Mr. McLaughlin said that at the end of the day, children can either read or they cannot read.
‘The Terra Nova isn’t a test teachers should be teaching students to pass,’ he said. ‘It is a test to assess skills.’
Mr. McLaughlin said the decision to use the Terra Nova tests instead of the CAT/5 (California Achievement Test fifth addition) test that had previously been used was made in May 2004. He added that many of the procedures for teaching and taking the Terra Nova test were similar to the CAT/5 test.
One of the main reasons the Terra Nova was used instead of the CAT/5 test was because it limited cultural bias, and that it had been adopted by Bermuda as well for that very reason. The CAT/5 results were also more difficult to interpret, Mr. McLaughlin said.
As for whether the test results were skewed by Hurricane Ivan and the teachers not knowing how to teach students to prepare for the test, Mr. McLaughlin said local research refuted the claim.
The test results from the Terra Nova test closely match findings of the Scholastic Reading Inventory reading comprehension test taken by Cayman Brac High School students, Mr. McLaughlin said.
‘While the Terra Nova data supplied as part of the pilot test is not totally reliable, the alarmingly low levels of literacy it shows is supported by additional testing done by Cayman Brac High School where the results are almost identical, the low levels of high grade passes by students in John Gray High School, and the consistent feedback from employers throughout the Cayman Islands.’
Data output from the Terra Nova testing of George Hicks High School showed that by grade nine, 54 per cent of the students were considered ‘at risk’ with their reading skills, meaning they were performing two or more grade levels below their current grade level.
‘Even if you don’t believe the Terra Nova [test results] are right and that it paints too bleak of a picture… look at the results of external exams at John Gray High School,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.
‘We betray our children if we don’t make this right,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘There’s no room for platitudes, generalities, nice sounding statements and worrying about whose feelings are going to be hurt.
‘I hold no ill will, but I make no apologies for making sure I’m going to do what is necessary to get done.
‘I’m not blaming the principals or the teachers. [This problem] didn’t happen overnight,’ he said. ‘There was neglect of attention to it for years and years and years. But we’ve got to stop covering it up and worrying about who will feel bad if you say this.’