Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why I Don't Care that an Adult Failed a Standardized Test

Update: Here is an example standardized math test the adult failed. I am more math fluent than most, having taken engineering-level math classes all through college. I cannot imagine that a successful businessman has no need to use basic graph-reading, estimation, or even understand basic equations. Here is the answer key if you want to see how well you do.

Is this test harder than you thought? Easier? It is much easier than I thought it would be based on the man's exclamations and I find it hard to believe he could only get 10 questions right--and those being guesses.

There has been a lot of buzz around the Washington Post's blog on an adult who took a standardized test and failed it. For everyone who hates the idea of "teaching to the test", who homeschools by radical unschooling, or hates having teachers and budgets held to the results of standardized tests, the post is flaunted as proof that testing is unhelpful.

The adult who took the test is a member of the school board in the district. He is well-educated with grown children and an apparently healthy bottom-line. If he cannot do well on the test, then why are we expecting our students to know 70% of a test he did not?

His argument: I don't know this stuff now and I am successful, so why should high schoolers need to know it. Very simple answer: Not every kid is going to do what he is doing.

I see the same bias in homeschoolers who do not understand why kids need a strong foundation in math in their younger years. Even a certified secondary school math teacher in a seminar I attended implored stay-at-home mothers to envision how they use math and to use that knowledge as a basis for how they teach math to their children.

As long as you are OK that your child could never become an engineer, scientist, actuary, and a host of other math-dominated careers, even if they desperately wanted to be one, then, by all means, teach the kids only the math you now need as an adult.

Secondarily, just because you do not use something in your career or everyday life does not mean that there are not very good reasons to know it.

When I was in engineering school, I often heard the rumblings of other students (since I am at least young enough to have gone to school realizing that computers were going to be doing some seriously heavy lifting by the time I entered the work force), "Why should we bother to learn this? When we graduate, all we will need to do is press a button."

And how will you know what data to enter? How will you select the appropriate parameters for the program you are working on? If your program's finite element analysis grid size is wrong, then you may miss the failure point and you will have no way of knowing how much or little confidence to place in the results. You won't even know enough to calculate a confidence interval.

And if, for some reason, the computer spits a spurious result out at the end of its work, the engineer who was never taught the principles by which the code operates has no way of knowing that his design may not be as robust as he believes. Also true even for calculators.

Another misconception is that because an adult does not appear to need such information now, they have never needed that information.   There are some very strident opinions that I hold today specifically because, at one point, I went through the hard work of applying some information that I knew way-back-when and confirmed. I cannot remember details at this point because I have had no reason to revisit them.

Does that mean that I will defend everything I learned at school? Hell, no. No one today will ever learn to draft blueprints by hand and will never be at a loss for having avoided it. Just like it would have been ridiculous to for me to learn the slide rule.

What is the difference? I know the purpose of those objects and I understand that purpose conceptually. The tools can change and the presentation can change.

I would argue forcibly that mathematics sees too much theoretical math pushed down into elementary grades (my daughter has worked on set theory, prime numbers, and exponents in 3rd and 4th grade without even learning about division) because teachers and curriculum developers think they are teaching harder things by introducing high-level concepts.

Mathematicians are part of this nonsense because they want to see children exposed to their favorite math-theory puzzles or fascinations because that is what turns them on about math. They think that if kids see these ideas earlier that they will be excited about math.

More frequently, the children miss out on developing a real number and operation sense because they were too busy trying to figure out how to divide numbers without actually ever having being taught division and they end up frustrated and puzzled.

As you can see, I am no 'test no matter what' advocate. I am also against using any one person's experience as a barometer for what children should be taught.


Monica said...


Monica said...

There are plenty of valid criticisms of public education. This isn't one of them, IMO.

Sometimes I do believe people just want to complain about anything and everything to do with public education and are removed from the reality of what is actually in these tests.

I scored thousands of standardized exams several years ago. The exams are scored by several people and if there are discrepancies, the scorers have to be re-trained and the exams re-scored. The system isn't perfect, but the scorers are hired by private contractors. I have a difficult time imagining how such testing would be completely eliminated in a private system. You need some objective basis to determine whether Johnny knows that 2+2=4, or whether Sally can construct a coherent essay, without having the teacher or parent involved.

Another thing that bothers me is blind criticism of things like multiple choice and true-false. I agree that short answer is better at assessing what students know, but I have honestly NEVER had a student who scores MUCH better on short answer than they do "fill in the bubble" questions. The plain fact is that students either know the material and can solve the problem, or they don't -- whether they are asked to put it in writing or not.

The problem with modern eduction is a mixture of poor philosophy, administration that has conflicting political goals that do not include learning, and poor teacher quality. Not the idea of an examination to see what a student knows, for goodness' sake.

You hit the nail on the head.

Kim said...


I didn't make it clear enough in my post, but I am for testing. My motto is, "What's wrong with teaching to the test when it's a good test?"

Defining a 'good test' is the tricky part. Here in Connecticut, our students take the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) every year. I've never seen it, but checking out what my kids bring home, half of "teaching to the test" is teaching the kids how to format their writing properly.

I don't know why they don't fill in bubbles for efficiency. Probably exactly because those who decide want to feel like they are finding out more.

I just took some SAT practice questions for fun (yep--for fun) and the answers are not random--they are based on the right answers and three or four ways you might typically mess up.

Monica said...

Yup, pretty much my thoughts exactly. (I am a biology prof at several local colleges.)

I have certainly seen exams in which questions are poorly worded or do not meet the goal of assessing a student's knowledge or abilities. Usually the problem arises from oversimplified test questions constructed by non-specialists, particularly in the sciences. But the problem is not examinations per se. And I seriously doubt that many standardized exams don't meet those standards. Seriously, there are just better things to complain about in public education. We don't need to go making up problems.

As a professor who works with a lot of students going into the medical profession, I can state for certain that the idea that students simply don't need to know how to do X, Y, or Z for their profession is greatly exaggerated. I'm sorry, but if you're going into nursing and you don't know the difference between a milligram and a microgram, that's frightening, and you can eventually kill someone. What happens when your little automated machine that measures out medicine doesn't work? :) The same thing as what happened here, only with probably much worse consequences:

I'm so tired of people making excuses for laziness or a lack of intellectual curiosity. What happened to wanting to compete against oneself and see how well one can do against an objective measurement?