A firm whose admitted errors in scoring resulted in the mistaken failing of thousands of students in the New York City school system has been hired by the Secaucus Board of Education to test students here. Mistakes made by McGraw-Hill, which developed and scored the test for New York City last year, resulted in many kids being sent summer school or failing for the year. Secaucus school officials claimed the company has since corrected its errors in New York City as well as mistakes made is several other states. The Board of Education agreed to spend $20,000 - or about twice what they had spent per year in the past - to institute the Terra Nova test, a basic skills and writing test administered by McGraw-Hill. The Terra Nova test will be given to stundents in grades 1 through 12 in order to better prepare students for New Jersey state tests given in the 4th , 8th and 11th grades. Schools Superintendent Constantino Scerbo said the district has been seeking a test that more closely resembled newly-instituted tests given by the state so that school officials could better evaluate their students, better prepare them for the state tests, and align student evaluations with the state's Core Curriculum standards. Many of the changes in the state test over the last three years are the result of federal legislation. The Improvement America's Schools Act, passed in the mid-1990s, requires that each state receiving federal dollars have a student assessment system that serves as the primary means of determining the yearly performance of each local education agency and school served. Two years ago, the state began a pilot program that changed the nature of testing students in the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. Many districts then grappled with whether or not to change testing methods to more directly line up with the new methods the state had a adopted, and have a better local sense of how their students stood in regards to the state's mandates. Tests previously used, Scerbo said, failed to provide the kind of information districts needed in this regard. The state test emphasizes writing and analysis, none of which are tested in the standardized testing which generally has been given in grades 1 through 12. While comparisons with students in other school districts are made easier by standardized tests, and the scores seem impressive to the uninitiated, very little information that can be used to develop curriculum can be gained from them, Scerbo said. While standardized tests give the district a picture of how Secaucus students perform against state and national samples, they fail to give the district information vital to determining what its student population needs. The questions are often multiple choice and fail to test a student's depth of knowledge. There are three kinds of test used in American schools today: criterion referenced, standardized and I.Q. tests, said Owen J. Roberts in a Administrative Position Paper published through the national Educational Clearing House in Washington, D.C. Criterion-based is a test given by a teacher following instruction on a given topic or skill to determine whether or not the student has mastered either. These tests are given a score of zero to 100 percent based on how many questions the student has gotten right. Standardized testing measures the group and individual performance of a broad number of students. I.Q. tests measure potential for learning and are virtually useless as a measure of what has been learned. Scerbo said that many of the testing firms in the past have not kept up with the current needs, and that using some studies, school officials determined that Terra Nova, a test issued by McGraw-Hill, is the closest the district could find to meeting the state test. In fact, Terra Nova, according to Scerbo, seemed to parallel the state test extremely well. "We met with different companies in New Jersey and after evaluating them, determined this was the closes to the state test," he said. Critics, however, say there is good reason for this, since McGraw-Hill's staff designs its Terra Nova tests in every state to meet the criteria of that state. Critics claim the company - in its rush to meet the same standards - may not be as familiar with the student population as companies whose tests have been used in the state previously. One study in Oregon claimed tests there often did not reflect the culture in which kids there grew up. What is Terra Nova Terra Nova is a new achievement test series introduced in the fall of 1996, and according to a company spokesperson, it attempts to measure student knowledge and achievement in many ways and to give teachers valuable information on how to improve instruction. Although advertised at a criterion referenced test, Terra Nova is really a modified standardized test that evolved out the older Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). Performance standards for Terra Nova were established by panels of teachers and university experts from across the country. The test combines traditional multiple choice questions with essay questions and various problem-solving tasks. All of these are often linked by themes that reflect the world outside the classroom. Tests designed for grades six and above focus on school-to-career.transitions. According to representatives from McGraw-Hill, the test is designed to better reflect the variety of teaching methods now available in the classroom, testing the student's ability to analyze information and evaluate it in various situations. Because the written portions must be evaluated by a human being, the cost is greater, Scerbo said. With standardized tests - which are largely a series of filled-in spaces that a computer scans - no human intervention is necessary. Secaucus school officials claim Terra Nova is objective and relative and can allow the district to track each student year by year noting changes and what each student might need. "Since the school also instituted a student assistance program, students can find help after school in those areas tests show as weak," Scerbo said. Terra Nova evaluations can provide individual profile reports, class records, performance level reports, group performance, and other various information. "These tests can give you an idea about how an individual student is performing on the state or district curriculum, or how an individual student is performing compared to other students from around the district, around the state or around the nation," said Mike Flicek, a research assessment coordinator in North Carolina, where these tests have been initiated. "It is possible to track the individual students' progress over time." Teachers' unions in several states claim the results of new tests will be also linked to their performance. If a child fails, the teacher may also suffer. Old tests might be as accurate Scerbo said this was the best test to assess students' ability in writing, since it requires students to write rather than only answering multiple choice questions. "This is more in line with what students can expect when being tested by the state, where essay questions have also replaced multiple choice in many areas," he said. "This test is open-ended. Children have to supply a writing sample. Then we send them out to have the get the assessment." Professor George Cunningham from the University of Louisville, however, said standardized tests were as accurate, a lot less time consuming and a bit less subject to interpretation, than Terra Nova. He said "new age" tests being developed by large testing companies are largely little more than the essay questions traditionally taken by students in classrooms in the past. "There is no a scintilla of evidence to show that performance tests are better than multiple-choice test and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary," he said, noting that recent studies show multiple-choice tests provide more than twice the information than tests like Terra Nova do. "We found that a 75-minute multiple choice test is as reliable as a 185-minute test built of constructed response questions." Professor Cunningham said reading comprehension could be measured accurately via multiple choice. Other critics of Terra Nova-like programs claim the older standardized tests have a higher level of reliability than the newer generation of tests, and are less disruptive to classroom routines. Critics claim the standardized tests have a proven track record, which the new tests do not. In fact, these critics claim that new tests are developed so quickly that there is not enough evidence to determine if they are as reliable in the long-term as the traditional tests. Because programs like Terra Nova are adjusted to meet changing requirements from state to state, the results from testing other states may not be valid in New Jersey.