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The ‘questionable questions’ on today’s standardized tests

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This is an excerpt from a new book by John Merrow, an award-winning broadcast journalist who spent 41 years covering public education in the United States for PBS, and who served as the executive producer, host and president of Learning Matters, a not-for-profit corporation that creates content about education. Merrow, who recently retired from both jobs, still writes about education, and he has published “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”

If you are thinking that the 12-step approach is a metaphor for the 12-step program that Alcoholics Anonymous uses, you are right; it’s intentional. Merrow writes in his preface that he means “no disrespect to those struggling with addiction or to AA itself” and that he thinks AA “has it right.” He wrote:

After many years of covering education and educators, I am convinced that we as a nation are “hooked” on what we hope will be quick fixes for deep systemic problems. …
Worse yet, we consistently blame the (inevitable) failures of school reform on teachers, students, under-resourced public schools, and sometimes on all three. That’s doing serious damage to children’s psyches, the teaching profession, and public education generally.”

34 problems with standardized tests

Merrow will give a talk and answer questions Tuesday at Busboys and Poets, at 5th and K streets NW. He will be introduced by Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, who will moderate a Q&A session, and it all will be filmed by C-SPAN. Right after the event, he and his wife, Joan, will head to Rwanda to accomplish what he calls “a longstanding goal/dream: to climb to see the mountain gorillas.”

Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems

Here’s the excerpt, which I am publishing with permission:

Experiencing the vapidity of some test questions may help you grasp the problems with testing and understand why American students score lower than their counterparts in most other advanced nations. The first sample problem was offered by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh to high school math teachers and was designed to help “close the math achievement gap.”
Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds. How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?
Basic subtraction for high school students?
My second example comes from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:
Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?
This question’s premise is questionable. Will some students be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness? Won’t they ask themselves how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river? What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes? That girls are dumb?
I found my third sample question on a high school math test in Oregon:
There are 6 snakes in a certain valley. The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?
These three high school math problems require simple numeracy at most. With enough practice—note I did not say critical thinking—just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like these and consequently feel confident of their ability.
School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like these three is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long. To be good at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll, and, occasionally, practicing free throws.
Both basketball and life are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense. Like life, the pace of the game can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles, and having your teammates’ backs. Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game. Even the greatest players miss more than half of their shots, and some (even Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams. And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities. If school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers? This sort of trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.
My fourth example is a Common Core National Standards question for eighth graders in New York State. Keep in mind that the Common Core is supposed to introduce “much-needed rigor” to the curriculum.
Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A’B’C’ is the resulting image. What parts of A’B’C’ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle? Explain your reasoning.
This problem represents the brave new world of education’s Common Core, national standards adopted at one point by nearly every state and the District of Columbia.5 This new approach exposes students to higher and more rigorous standards. The hope is that the curriculum will challenge and engage students.
Reading that prose, are you feeling engaged? Imagine how eighth graders might feel. If the first three problems are the educational equivalent of practicing free throws, then solving problems like this one is akin to spending basketball practice taking trick shots, like hook shots from midcourt—yet another way not to become good at the sport.
If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life. If (under the flag of greater rigor) we ditch those boring questions in favor of triangles and other lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach: the 99 percent who are not destined to become mathematicians.
My fifth example was given to fifteen-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment):
Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 p.m.
Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.
Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 p.m.?
Note that this is not a multiple-choice question. To get the correct answer, students had to perform a number of calculations. The correct answer (11 a.m.) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai fifteen-year-olds but just 9 percent of the U.S. students.
Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in confidence in mathematical ability, despite underperforming their peers in most other countries. I wonder if their misplaced confidence is the result of too many problems like the one about the snakes.
In addition to being more challenging, PISA and other international tests are given to a carefully drawn sample of students. Administering standardized tests to every student in grades 3 through 8 plus grade 10—which is what current U.S. laws require—is unnecessary and wasteful.6 Ask yourself who benefits when schools test all kids. Not students, not teachers, and not the general public.

Here are the footnote references:

5) States have been abandoning the Common Core in droves, usually for political reasons.

6) John Merrow, “The Adventures of Sampleman,” Taking Note, December 1, 2014, I had some fun with this when I created a comic strip, “The Adventures of Sampleman.” In the first (and last) installment, Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits the doctor for his annual physical.

Copyright © 2017 by John Merrow.  This excerpt originally appeared in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education by John Merrow, published by The New Press.” Reprinted here with permission.