Friday, June 5, 2020
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Publishing a spoof on standardized tests by an 8th-grader

An eighth-grade student in a New York middle school wrote an erudite spoof on the quality of the state’s standardized testing, and Valerie Strauss published it on her Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post, here.

I absolutely loved the second paragraph of the “reading passage” in this mini-standardized test. It starts out with the following comma-spliced sentence: “Not all students are the same, therefore standardized tests are impractical.” Then it quotes Albert Einstein, and the quote may be inaccurately attributed (sources vary).

The student, Sophia Stevens, may have stumbled into this, but as I have scoured practice tests and publicly released test forms provided by various state departments of education, I can say, without a moment of hesitation, that these minor errors—which test-taking kids would just read right over in the interest of diligently stressing over getting the answers right so their teacher doesn’t lose her job—are nothing compared to some of the egregious errors I have found on released tests, which, especially on multiple-choice questions, trick kids, frustrate them, and paralyze them in picking an answer.

For example, although the overall quality of Maryland’s middle school science test is superior, it’s not difficult to find errors in questions that were once used to compute student scores and label schools as failing. In the form released for 2012, for example, we find the following question:

In 1850, James Prescott Joule, inventor of arc welding, stated that energy does not disappear when transformed in a machine.


Joule showed that some mechanical energy is always transformed into

A. electrical energy
B. chemical energy
C. heat energy
D. light energy

The correct answer is (C) heat energy, but how are eighth-graders supposed to know what some scientist they’ve never heard of “showed” in the 1800s? For that matter, why does it even matter what the scientist’s name was or that he invented arc welding? Or that he said something in 1850? This isn’t a trivia game.

Of course, with all the sparks flying around in the picture, a kid can pretty much narrow it down to heat and light. But that’s not the real problem here.

The real quote is from an 1884 article Joule wrote: “The most convincing proof of the conversion of heat into living force [vis viva] has been derived from my experiments with the electro-magnetic engine, a machine composed of magnets and bars of iron set in motion by an electrical battery. I have proved by actual experiment that, in exact proportion to the force with which this machine works, heat is abstracted from the electrical battery. You see, therefore, that living force may be converted into heat, and that heat may be converted into living force, or its equivalent attraction through space.”

(I could be wrong about the real quote, but I couldn’t find anything Joule ever wrote about energy “disappearing.” Anyway, it’s not my real point, so going on …)

But if the test had quoted Joule as he said what he said, it would have given away the answer, since as every kid knows, on multiple-choice tests, if you see one word in the question and that word (heat) is in only one of the answers, odds are that’s the correct answer.

We’re starting to see, in some of the math tasks being previewed by the PARCC team, lots of extraneous information. An attempt is being made to attach the math problems to the “real world” through contrived contexts. However, some contexts are so far-fetched as to provide no connection to how we use math. Furthermore, the contexts may be so far outside kids’ real-world experience that they become less able to answer the actual question.

One can hope that the actual test questions will be better than those PARCC is previewing, but I’m not holding my breath. We are likely to get more of the same questions Sophia spoofed in her mini-test.

If questions don’t require anything more than a regurgitation of learning standards published by the state—and they usually don’t—adding this extraneous information just makes kids take time to read something that doesn’t do them any good in terms of the score achieved on the test or 21st-century skills. Great!

I found Sophia’s “standardized test” eye-opening. Although students need to be tested, there’s no good reason to slack off on the quality of questions used on those tests or to feed students volumes of information that has nothing to do with their understanding of what’s supposedly being tested.

Finally, a test is only as good as the sum total of the questions that comprise it. I can’t say for sure whether Sophia did what she did in the second paragraph on purpose, but it sure made for a very well done parody that we should all learn something from.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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