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January 9, 2003

Unbelievable. New York State is still lying to children. As previously discussed here and here.

We all have some things that makes us want to simply march down the corridors of power, find the miscreant, and punch them in the nose. This is one of mine. [08:12 PM]

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Comments on Unbelievable.:

Michael Rawdon ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 08:54 PM:

I think most people would agree that there are many things about public education that could be better, even if we can't agree on what they are. (Myself, I'd start with teachers being underpaid and school systems underfunded.)

But at this point it's not clear to me that standardized testing improves any of these things, even a little bit. It's just a big boondoggle.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 08:57 PM:

I like the bit about the history question having three correct answers. If the education commissioner's right that one of the answers was, in context, "clearly the best", it only goes to show how much success on multiple-choice tests depends on being able to think like the examiners, rather than on one's knowledge of the material.

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2003, 10:16 PM:

Well, as I remember from multiple choice tests, if there's more than one right answer, there's supposed to be an option to do either "A, B & C" or else instructions to "choose the BEST answer."

Which still doesn't excuse the sloppiness of the scholarship, or the bowdlerization.

My dislike of the practice started when I was five and my grandmother gave me an abridged version of The Wind in the Willows. However, my sister had an unabridged version, and after learning what "abridged" meant (and why her book was thicker), the gift went on the shelf and I adopted my sister's copy as my own.

But at least abridged books have "abridged" listed prominently on the title page, and "adapted" books are the same way, usually listing the adapter. I'd like it if bowdlerized books would do the same, listing not only the fact, but the person responible so he or she could receive the appropriate fanmail.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 01:28 AM:

But is the best answer the one the examiners are most likely to expect, or the one that most demonstrates that you're clever? In the case in point (relationship of WWI war effort to influenza epidemic) is the best answer the one the paragraph seems to be emphasizing, or the one that really was the most important factor?

I'm nitpicking, of course, but these are not unreasonable questions. I happen to be quite good at this particular game, but it is a game, and it would be nice if our politicians would figure that out.

Does anyone have any stats on the predictive value of, say, SATs on GPA, adjusted for school and program? I'd have to say that, in my extremely anecdotal experience, it didn't do a particularly good job of predicting "scholastic aptitude" -- plenty of my high school classmates had lower scores than I did but went on to get better grades in tougher programs at more prestigious schools.

*shrug* I shouldn't complain; I'm sure plenty of people out there still think IQ testing is accurate and meaningful, too....

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 03:34 AM:

A clever person should be able to parse for bullshit factors and know how to parrot back the answers bureaucrats want, as opposed to the answers that are true.

For example, there was that point I remembered losing on my State Requirements class driving safety test: T/F All the same laws apply to bicycles as do to cars.

They want you to mark "True," despite the fact that I've yet to see a bicyclist having to wear a seatbelt, or allowed to take their bike as a one-person vehicle onto the commuter lane of the freeway.

I gave the smart-alecky acurrate answer in class, but made sure to give the BS propaganda one on my actual driver's test.

Not that any of this excuses bowdlerizing literature.

Chip Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 08:24 AM:

I survived the NYS Regents Exams in the early 60s. As I look back, it is interesting to note that the Regents Exams I had to take, in addition to finals in the course work by the teachers themselves, I aced in spite of the fact that I was barely getting by in the course. I had a 69 in geometry all year long...come the Regents I got a 98...my geometry teacher ( a man I still have a huge respect for today) sought me out that afternoon, dumbfounded...as was I...I would have called it a fluke except for the fact that I did the same thing in Latin, Physics, and Chemistry. One has to conclude that the standards were a little higher at the local level. I guess I did my part for boosting the stats at the state BOE.

Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 10:39 AM:

What really boggles me about this whole thing is that there's just no need for it. It's not like the high-schoolers taking the Regents exam in English or History are going to recognize that a passage came from Kafka or whoever, and draw some extra inferences on that basis.

If they want completely inoffensive passages of literature, I'm sure the slush piles of New York publishing firms could provide any number of incredibly bland reading comp passages. Or, failing that, they could at least provide the names of aspiring authors who would be happy to write some bland and inoffensive passages demonstrating whatever writing technique they're trying to test. There's no reason why they should be editing down famous works for these tests.

I have a little more sympathy for the multiple-right-answers problem, as even in the sciences, it can be a bit tricky to write multiple choice answers in such a way that there's only one correct choice, but the answer isn't so screamingly obvious that the question is worthless. I've gotten burned by this a couple of times writing quizzes for my intro classes, and physics generally provides unambiguously correct answers, which are considerably harder to come by in the social sciences.

Even there, though, it's not like they're slapping the Regents Exam together in the fifteen minutes between the end of a faculty meeting and the start of class. Somebody should've noticed this problem before the students ever got a look at the test.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 01:44 PM:

Kevin wrote: "A clever person should be able to parse for bullshit factors and know how to parrot back the answers bureaucrats want, as opposed to the answers that are true."

I'm not sure I buy that. First, there are plenty of different kinds of "clever" -- someone who's clever at, say, figuring out mathematical brain teasers, may be exactly the wrong person to try to interpret the psychology of an educational bureaucrat. Second, I don't think the avowed purpose of the test -- regardless of what its actual effect may be -- is to judge students' ability to parse and parrot.

Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 03:09 PM:

Kevin Murphy comments on bowdlerized texts for children. I recently ran into an old but still circulating example of this. My first-grader (who reads above grade level, no surprise) came home with an old elementary school "reader" of Little Women. In general, I have been avoiding such highly-abridged books, preferring to wait until she was old enough/had enough comprehension to read the real thing, but she picks out her own books in the school library and she wanted to read this.

We read a chapter or so at bedtime and then I took the book away to pre-read the rest (I generally do this so as to have reasonable ideas of what concepts I will have to explain to my daughter as we go). Imagine my shock when I discovered that Beth does not die!

I did not allow my child to read the rest of the book. I explained to her that an important part of the story had been changed in this version and that while it was okay to read different versions of fairy tales, it was not okay to read versions of books which changed the meaning to something the author did not want. I also said I would write a note to the teacher explaining why my daughter would not be completing that assignment, if my daughter felt it was necessary. (Apparently everything was okay, because that was the last I heard of the subject.)


On the matter of testing:
When I was in high school, IQ testers often used us as guinea pigs, to see if their "new" tests would produce the same results as the Stanford-Binet. It got to be rather a game with us, seeing if we could figure out the "right" answers from the way the tests were constructed (as opposed to actually working the tests). I'm afraid many of us treated the SATs and Regents much the same way--as an exercise in test-taking rather than in measuring knowledge.

Michael Rawdon ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 03:52 PM:

I used a Princeton Review book when studying for the GRE. It had a very sensible, practical approach to studying for the tests. The paragraph I recall clearly from the book was on the reading comprehension section:

"People read for different reasons. Some people read for pleasure. Some people read for general knowledge. Some people read to learn a specific piece of knowledge. On the GRE, you read for one and only one reason: To earn points."

I eventually realized that the SAT and GRE tests are only useful in separating people who have some very basic reasoning skills from people who don't. And even that's a pretty uncertain thing.

A company I once worked at gave all programmer applications a programming test. When I took the test, I thought it was simple; there were several "hard" questions I would not have hesitated to give to some of my intro programming students when I was a TA.

Several years later I became a grader for the tests. I was somewhat surprised at how many people simply did not do well at the test, although they presumably considered themselves qualified programmers by applying for the job. It made me think that the company's use of the test had some value.

I don't think the SAT and GRE are used in this way, though.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 08:43 PM:

They want you to mark "True," despite the fact that I've yet to see a bicyclist having to wear a seatbelt, or allowed to take their bike as a one-person vehicle onto the commuter lane of the freeway.

Consider, also, the vice versa. Drivers alighting from their cars to walk them across intersections is a charming image. Cars proceeding along park bike paths is perhaps more alarming.

Cassandra P-S ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2003, 01:40 AM:

I need to access that Times article, but I'll say this: as a semi-recent graduate of the NYS high school system and the Regents testing system, I'm disgusted that they're still doing this. They said they'd stopped.

Now I know why I never got a reply back to my incensed letter to one of the board members: they never stopped.

Chad: Well, that's not always true. I recognized a passage on one of my SATs and was able to use the knowledge of the entire rest of the essay to answer a question that would otherwise have been one of those "do the test-takers want this answer, even though the evidence seems to point to this other answer?" questions.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2003, 11:26 AM:

In my utopia there would be no standardized tests. I've hated them since I was a child and was especially disgusted by the test I took in the German public schools in the 4th grade which, I was told, determined whether the children would go to college or not (i. e. go to Gymnasium, the feeder schools for the universities). The fact that I did well on standardized tests did not improve my opinion of them. They are a waste of classroom time. In high school I refused to take SAT practice tests: the real thing was too exhausting. Practice tests would either be exhausting or would yeild artificially low scores because I wasn't really trying.

It did cross my mind to refuse to allow Peter to take standardized texts. I haven't decided on this issue. Our school district is trying to diminish the quantity of standardized tests New York State requires Chappaqua students to take. The state opposes dropping the requirement, arguing that our district is a "benchmark" district against which to measure others. Our district argues that it is of no benefit to their students to be a benchmark. Huge amounts of classroom and teaching time must be devoted to test preparation and administration.

While they do have some utility for large scale quality control of industrially organized public education, it is my general feeling that standardized testing in its current form is evil.

While sanitizing literature, culture, and history on standardized tests is inexcusable, I have to say that I myself am a literary sanitizer:

Peter (age 5): What are you reading, mommy?
Me: A story.
Peter: Can you read it to me?
Me: Sure. Hop up on the couch next to me.

So we're reading along, and there are occasional words that I wouldn't want him to say in Kindergarten and details that are a bit too graphic, etc. I edit them out as I read and since he can't read, he doesn't notice yet. And if the little kid in the story is about to be maimed or mutilated or some such, I say "Gee, this one is getting boring. Let's see what other stories are in here."

So Peter got to hear China Mieville's story "Familiar" (Conjunctions 39), but with "he had eaten shit and roadkill" amended to "he had eaten roadkill" and a few other changes. He loved it.

Dustin Wax ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2003, 06:32 PM:

I used to teach for the Princeton Review (SAT math) and the second thing we would tell our students (after "The SAT does not measure how smart you are, only how well you take the SAT) was that we would not be teaching them how to do math, we would be teaching them how *not* to do math. The whole foundation of the Princeton Review (and Kaplan, I imagine) is that a student can more easily learn the structure of the SAT and how to use it than, say, trig or advanced algebra. Anyone who has taken an SAT tutorial (professional or informal) already knows the first rule--eliminate two answers and guess; you have a 50% chance of being right, and if you did this for every question, you'd still get a pretty good score--without *knowing* a single right answer! More typically, you do all the questions you *know* you know, and guess as well as possible on the rest--giving you a better score than a similarly knowledgable student who did all the questions s/he knew and got the rest wrong.

Getting back to the topic at hand, what I find most distressing is the idea that there is a "clearly best" answer to a history question. Tests are not just measurements, they are part of the educative process--not only do we learn from our errors (although, on standardized tests, we never really find out what our errors were, which makes them of even less value) but, after 12 years of test-taking, we learn to think through tests. They structure our learning and our expectations from learning--and the message the tests' apologist is sending is not only that this answer, and not the others, is the "fact", but that history itself is a matter of finding the one "clearly correct" answer to complicated cultural/social/economic/political events. By denying that there are, in fact, different interpretations of the same event, and that these interpretations are generally made by perfectly rational, intelligent, respected historians who rarely achieve consensus, is to reduce history from intellectual engagement to a parlor game.