When students like Robin Kelleher’s son, a fourth grader, opened their state exam test booklets this week, some felt a sense of deja vu.

“He told me that he killed it because it was really easy. These are his quotes, ’It was really easy,’” Kelleher, a Manhattan parent of three children in public schools, said. “It took him like twenty minutes, and the two passages were two passages that he recognized and had worked on.”

What You Need To Know

  • State exams given this week are recycling questions used on exams in recent years

  • And some of those questions had been posted online publicly and used in practice tests in recent days

  • That raises further questions about what, if anything, the tests can tell parents and educators

Parents and teachers say many of the questions on this week’s English Language Arts tests, given to students in grades three through eight, were recycled from tests given just a few years ago. And they were familiar to students because those old exam questions had been released online and used as practice questions for students preparing for the test. 

“He recognized the test. And he said, ‘I don’t remember if it was the right answer, but I do remember the passage,’” Kelleher said.

In a statement, the state Education Department acknowledged reusing recent questions and said it was necessary because the state was unable to field test questions — a quality control process used to make sure questions are fair and accurate — due to the pandemic.

“The decision to use previously administered test questions in this extraordinary year was based on guidance from nationally recognized experts in the assessment field,” a spokeswoman said.

The state didn’t want to give the exams at all, and had asked the federal government for a waiver to skip the tests due to the pandemic. But the Biden Administration has argued the exams are necessary to measure learning loss during the pandemic.

The recycled questions will only serve to increase skepticism of the exam’s validity this year. But state education department officials argue it was unrealistic to expect exams could be truly standardized this year — since across the state, students do not have a standardized schooling experience. Depending on the district or the school, they may be fully remote, in-person part time, or in person full time.

And the state noted that remote students are likely the students who most need their progress measured after the disruption of the pandemic, but are not required to take the exams.

In New York City, the test was only given to students who signed up for it, a major change likely to mean many fewer students take the exams, and will make it hard to compare to prior years.

“We've never had a situation like this,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at his daily briefing. “It's obviously because of the pandemic. I think we're going to see it as different than anything we've dealt with before, and you know, make judgments accordingly.”

Still, Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said she believes there will be some things the city can learn from the results.

“The test will give us information that we will use to inform how we support students. Families made decisions about taking the test because they wanted that information,” Porter said.

But some information has been hard to come by, like whether the exams will be part of the criteria for getting into selective middle and high schools. The chancellor said that decision hasn’t yet been made.

“I just wish they would get their act together and provide some measures that would actually adequately assess what our students know and how hard they’re working,” Kelleher said.

The scores won’t be used to determine whether children move on the next grade.