Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Standardized Testing: Word Problems?

For the next two weeks, we will be spending nearly two hours of each day giving our junior high school students their annual standardized tests. Actually, we will begin today, as the school doesn't do any testing on Mondays or Fridays. This is due to our relatively high rate of student absenteeism on those two days.

Here in California, the tests are collectively known as the Standardized Testing and Reporting (
STAR) assessment protocols.

I was reading in The New York Times that there have been some concerns expressed about the wording on the standardized tests (known as
TAKS) that are given in Texas:

Two years ago, fifth graders taking Texas's annual standardized science test faced this multiple-choice question: "Which two planets are closest to Earth?" The four choices were "Mercury and Saturn," "Mars and Jupiter," "Mercury and Venus" and "Venus and Mars."

But wait, said Mark Loewe, a Dallas physicist who was curious about what students are expected to know and so took the test. The question asked which planets - not which planets' orbits - were closest to Earth. So the correct answer depends on when the question is asked.

"Mercury, which orbits closest to the Sun, is closest to Earth most often," Dr. Loewe said, and sure enough, during that test week in spring 2003, Mercury and Mars were the planets closest to Earth, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Web site. That pair was not among the possible answers.

So is the question valid? Perhaps, since the problem was written for a typical 10-year-old, not someone with Dr. Loewe's understanding of science. On the other hand, the problem ignores the physical world woven into the question, and that might trip up brighter fifth graders.

Part of the challenge is writing appropriate questions for a particular grade level while not misleading a student who happens to know more. A 10th grader with a sibling in 12th grade may know some higher-level math; a 12th grader taking a physics course at a local college or online may look at a question differently than another student in the same grade.

In most cases, the people who write the questions are or have been teachers. Often, they are paid to attend summer workshops led by companies that have contracted with the states to develop the tests.

There is much more to this article, and it can be read here.

I've been teaching for more years than I care to name here, and in that time, I've seen a number of test questions that were not only misleading, but the choices given for the students to select from were all wrong. (And yes, I did report the errors.)
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