Tag Archives: standardized testing

Rampant Unreasonableness

I often read things like this lovely blog-post and come away thinking: “Yeah!  Down with the establishment!  Let the revolution begin!  Where’s a trashcan so I can toss it through a store-front?”  (You know, a metaphorical trashcan which stands for project-based learning, and a store-front which represents standardized testing.  Definitely not a real trashcan.  The throwing of which would not be even slightly fun.)

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(Disclaimer: Not me, and not strictly education-related.)

Not that I think this blogger is even remotely advocating violent upheaval.  Just the nonviolent kind.  But upheaval nonetheless.

The thing that gives me pause after reading something like this – which advocates, essentially, unreasonableness when pursuing education goals which will help to better serve students – is my dubiousness over whether it will matter.  Too often in the news or even in daily conversations with my fellow Americans/voters/humans I hear rhetoric and see interactions which show a culture of dismissiveness toward teachers, their opinions, expertise, concerns, and statements concerning children’s educational needs.  I don’t think that it’s by any means the norm for teachers to be shy when telling administrators and policy-makers what they think about how education should work – it’s pretty easy to find YouTube videos chronicling town-hall after town-hall full of angry teachers and parents ostentatiously confronting administrators and even potential future presidents over everything from funding to adoption of the Common Core.

It’s true that the blog I’ve mentioned is focusing on what teachers can do in their school and classroom, and not necessary on the macropolitical aspect of public education.  But I for one would like to see a shift in the system toward a paradigm under which a teacher doesn’t have to fight so hard to justify sound curriculum and sound pedagogy – where such things are the norm, not something that has to be snuck in under the noses – or flaunted in the faces – of administrators, or crammed in wherever it can fit in the nonexistent gaps in the state-approved curriculum.

Sigh.  I’m ranting again.  Oh well – call me unreasonable.  Apparently that’s okay.  😉

(Image credit: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/zimmerman-verdict-protesters-break-windows-start-small-fires-oakland-article-1.1398356)

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Student/Teaching: A Pome

Read.  Write.  Read.  Write.  Write.  Write.  Read.

Prepare.  Second-guess.  Fret.  Be reassured.  Reassure.

Think.  Think.  Think.  Think.  Think.

 

My friends barely know what I do.

“Are you working?”

“Are you teaching?”

“Are you in school?”

Why do they think I know?

 

Philosophies.

“Stop thinking that teaching to the test is a bad thing.”

“You could give them poo on a platter, and they’d comment eloquently on how poo-like it smelled.”

STANDARDS.

Parent panic.

Self-panic.

 

They see, they hear.  Sometimes they understand.

Sometimes they give answers

to questions you haven’t asked.

Sometimes they ask you questions you never thought of.

 

Judged, judged, judged.

This is a year of judgement.

This is the first year of the rest of my life.

This is the year of the Hungry Caterpillar

and Hop On Pop.

This is the year I make myself responsible

for your child’s brain.

 

Now where did I put my own?

Which Bubble Will Fulfill My Dreams?

Standardized testing has been coming up a lot in recent readings and discussions in my education classes.  I find this fantastically well-timed, as I’m about to take my WEST-E exams in middle-level math and science.  Very briefly: the WEST tests are the state of Washington’s exams, the passage of which is required as part of one’s acquisition of a teaching certification.  In Washington.  I’ve already passed a handful of these exams; these next ones are specifically in pursuit of my middle-school-level science and math endorsements – i.e., they’re meant to prove that I have enough math-and-science knowledge to teach these subjects to 6th-thru-8th-graders.

Standardized testing is a monstrous issue in close orbit around the current maelstrom of American education reform, and I don’t intend to get deeply into all the pros and cons here.  I’ll simply state my position: that standardized testing has been given too much power to force American education in the wrong direction, and I am unsatisfied with the unthinking assumption that it is the best or most efficient method of “fixing” American education.  I am also unsatisfied with the unchallenged assumption that American education is “in crisis” in a way which can be positively affected by standardized testing.  Bill Ayers weighs in eloquently:

“Teachers, parents, and youngsters need to know exactly how the tests are made, who makes them and for what purposes, and who wins and who loses among test-takers.  Without this knowledge, our awe of the power of test scores is a bit like the folks admiring the emperor’s new clothes – everybody else sees it, so it must be there.  Armed with detailed knowledge of the process and the product, we may become like the little boy who can’t see the clothes . . .”

That’s from Ayers’ “To Teach: The Journey Of A Teacher”; Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” is of course also a good resource.  For a more comprehensive (and perhaps less biased) list of the pros and cons of standardized testing, here’s Procon.org‘s page on it, though I warn that many of the “con” arguments are very suspect – for instance, the statement “93% of studies have found student testing, including the use of large-scale and high-stakes standardized tests, to have a ‘positive effect’ on student achievement”.  What does that even mean?

Anyway, I’m looking down the barrel of not one but two standardized tests within the next three weeks.  I decided to get them out of the way early.  I wasn’t too worried about the math exam, as just last quarter I got a 4.0 in a college pre-calculus course – I think (and hope) that makes me safe in this case.  I wanted to make sure I had my science down, though – it’s been a long time since I covered biology or chemistry, for instance, in what I’d call an “academic” setting.

So I did the logical thing: I bought an expensive test-prep book.  My poison of choice was “WEST-E SECRETS: Middle Level Science (013)”, prepared by Mometrix Media LLC, which I now assume is a subsidiary of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or some similar organization.  Actually, no – I’m sure a product endorsed by Emperor Palpatine would probably be more devious in its method for crushing wills, rather than doing so merely by an accident of stupidity.

Let me explain what I mean with two selections from the practice test near the back of the book.

“18. Which of the following is NOT an example of one of Newton’s laws of motion at work? a) Once in orbit, a satellite will continue moving around the earth. b) It takes three times as much force to move a block that has twice the mass of another. c) A ball rolling across the floor will continue moving across the floor. d) When a shotgun is fired, the gun moves sharply in the opposite direction of the bullet.”

Now, according to the answer-key, the correct answer is B, and a quick calculation shows that if Force = Mass * Acceleration (Newton’s 2nd Law), and I have a block weighing 1kg, I would need a force of 1 Newton to move that block at an acceleration of 1m/s/s.  If I then had a block weighing 2kg, I would need 2 Newtons of force to move the block at the same acceleration.  Here’s the problem: the only information the answer gives is that I have to move the heavier block.  It doesn’t specify a desired acceleration.  The 2kg block will still move when 1 Newton is applied – at 0.5m/s/s acceleration.  Basically, the statement in B could be true, if a desired acceleration were given – but as it’s written, it could certainly be false.

Compare that with answer A, which the book says is in fact an example of Newton’s laws – the answer key explains that we’re looking at Newton’s 1st Law here – “An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external (unbalanced) force acts upon it.  An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an external (unbalanced) force acts upon it.”  Notice that I emboldened velocity.  I did this because a satellite in orbit around the Earth is constantly changing its velocity – that, in a way, is what distinguishes an “orbit”, when you’re talking about the trajectories of objects in space.  One object is circling around another, constantly being attracted by the orbited object’s gravitational pull – i.e., constantly being acted upon by an outside force, which stops it from hurtling off into deep space.  The satellite’s speed may not change – well, not significantly, and not if it’s in a near-perfect circular orbit as opposed to an ellipse, and not if it’s in a high enough orbit to avoid friction with the Earth’s upper atmosphere – are you beginning to see why I began to feel, as I stared dumbfounded at this question, that answer A seemed the least perfect picture of one of Newton’s laws, and therefore must be the correct answer to this question?

Here’s one more example, and then I’ll get out of your hair.

“17. Which of the following properties of a meteorite moving through the planet’s atmosphere would change as it approached the surface of the Earth? a) mass b) volume c) density d) weight”

The book’s answer: D, weight.  The correct answer?  All of them!  As an object descends through Earth’s (or any planet’s) atmosphere, it encounters tremendous friction as it has to force its way through dense clouds of molecules which weren’t there when it was happily traipsing through the vacuum of space.  This friction heats the object rapidly and to extreme temperatures; heat causes it to expand (lowering density) but also to burn away (lowering volume and mass).  I’m fairly certain that the book-answer took into account only the phenomenon of the mass of the meteorite getting closer to the mass of the planet, thereby increasing the gravitational attraction between them, which is measured by weight; though by the time the rock hit the planet’s surface (if indeed it got that far), its weight would be much less than if the unaltered rock were somehow teleported straight from the vacuum of space to the surface of the planet.

If this question had been written: “As an asteroid approaches the Moon, which of its following properties will change?”, then, in my mind, D – weight – would be an acceptable answer – the Moon has no atmosphere.  (Another technical point to bring up is the choice of the word “meteorite” in the original question – it’s only going to be called that by geologists who dig it out of the ground, after it hits.  In space it would be an asteroid; within the atmosphere, it would be a meteor.)

***

Now, I must stress – the above questions are not actual questions from the WEST-E exams, they are questions from a test-prep book which I’m now convinced was prepared by some underground cult of reptilian humanoids bent on world domination.  But nevertheless, they’ve got me worried; I’ve been bingeing on Khan Academy lectures ever since I took the practice-test and got an atrociously low score.  The above questions were only the most confusing and poorly-written selections from the prep book – there were many others which I got wrong simply because it’s been perhaps 10 years since I’ve been required to remember the obscure biology and chemistry terms demanded by the test – which is the other problem with these exams, really: they’re testing one’s ability to cram, and nothing more.  (This also proves to me, at least, the uselessness of the traditional treatment of topics in science: as a boot-camp of term memorization, the unconnected data easily forgotten within a year of the final exam.)  So cram I must, and cram I will.  Will there ever be a point in my life when I can consider myself free forevermore from cramming?  Only time will tell.

My Students And Their Gordian Knot

In 333 BCE, a young king named Alexander (perhaps not yet known as “The Great”) may or may not have had a vexing encounter with a knot made of cornel bark, may or may not have sliced it in half with his sword, and may or may not have thereby made his legal claim to rulership of Asia and spawned one of the most enduring legends in Western culture.

This parable is often touted in modern American culture as an example of divergent, “out-of-the-box” thinking: the ability to see many solutions to one problem, thereby equipping the problem-solver with manifold options for completing the task – many of which may be much simpler and easier than the “conventional” or “nose-to-the-grindstone” solution.  I’m more of the opinion that this interpretation is a hindsight-enabled, best-possible-version of events – knowing what I know of Alexander’s personality, I think it far more likely that he just got frustrated and hacked the thing to bits.

It’s a powerful image either way; either way, the problem got solved, either with ingenuity, or with passion.  Looking at this legend now, as I walk my road to the title and vocation of “teacher”, I can’t help but draw a comparison between Alexander’s situation and the situation of my own (near-future) students.  They, too, have a frustrating, knotted, tangled problem before them, which will take a lot of determination and grit to get through: they must successfully navigate and negotiate the devious web of standardized assessments, warped expectations, and uninformed rhetoric which guide my country’s education policymaking; they must fight through classes arranged around “tried-and-true” methodology which are trying to guide them toward the wrong conclusions; they must retain their native gifts, foster them in secret, and somehow hold onto the passion and uniqueness that defines them, in the face of a passionless and baffling establishment.

I think there is a simpler solution for my students.  I think that instead of breaking their hearts trying to fight through all the various trials our system currently puts in their way to weed out the “weak”, they should be circumventing, outflanking, outthinking.  They should be asking themselves, “what do I really need to do, and what is the simplest way to do it?”  They need to wonder whether what they’re trying to do is be reknowned for untying a knot, or reknowned for ruling Asia.  (Metaphorically.)

I seek some way in which I can hand them a sword, whisper in their ears to really think about this seemingly insurmountable problem, and lead them to the courage it will take to just cut the damned thing.  I don’t know exactly what this will look like; but it is my greatest ambition as a teacher.