Saturday, April 01, 2006

Show your work; don’t just record the answer

I feel my blood pressure rise whenever sample, standardized test questions for schools are printed in the newspaper as examples of “what kids ought to know.” I want to rant against the test makers who decide that. And then at the media and public who buy into it.

Next, I look at the questions to see what ambiguities there are to confuse the brightest kids, if not the slowest. I can always find ambiguity at the thinking levels of young students. My reasons for doing that are complex, perhaps, but part of it is the result of a test I took in the first grade.

Back then, almost no reading instruction, as such, was given in kindergarten. So we learned about reading in first grade. After only eighteen weeks, our class of nine six-year-olds was given a standardized reading/achievement test. I remember almost nothing about the questions.

I do remember one item, however, and two of the possible answer choices. There were probably at least three choices, most likely four. I missed the question.

I would never have known that, but the principal and teacher called me to the desk to look at the test and to explain my answer. The principal, Mr. Kitch, told me that it was the only question I had missed, and he wanted to understand my reason for marking the wrong choice. Imagine you are six years old and faced with that.

“I only missed one?” I said, showing where my priorities lay, perhaps. But I looked at the paper.

The test word was “mansion.” Pupils were to draw a line to the picture that represented the word’s meaning. I stood before the teacher and principal, immediately recalling my confusion in deciding.

As a depression era child from a tiny home on a dirt street in a blue-collar neighborhood where few families had cars, some families were without steady jobs, and there were almost no luxuries, I had had no experience with large houses. The word “mansion” held no meaning for me. I could recall neither hearing nor seeing the word before. But I had learned the skills necessary to “read” it.

I remember looking at the picture of the huge building with a large porch, wide windows, and tall columns and wondering if the word might mean that structure. First, I used the process of elimination to disregard the other pictures, thinking I knew the words that should be used to describe each of them. I drew a line to the house.

Then I erased it, for one other picture suddenly held confusing meaning. A man in a postal worker’s uniform and carrying a mailbag was another choice. My family called that a “mailman.” But as I sat pondering, I dissected the word “mansion,” and do clearly still remember thinking that the syllable “man” certainly could refer to the mailman. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the syllable ‘sion’ refers in some way to his uniform or to his job of delivering mail.” After drawing a line to the house and erasing it, I drew the line to the mailman.

Remember, the test was designed to show aspects of reading inability. It revealed my vocabulary limitation, perhaps as intended, and my socio-economic experience level. It failed to show that I could pronounce the word upon seeing its spelling or that I could divide a word into its syllables.

The teacher and principal were wiser than the makers of the test. Not only that, with a class of nine pupils in a small school, both the teacher and principal had time to dig into instruction as well as pupil thinking and learning. I explained the syllable “man,” and my confusion about the syllable “sion” as best I could. Mr Kitch nodded and smiled, and the teacher, Miss McNeil, turned to him and said, “I had a feeling that was the case.” She patted my hand and explained that “mansion” was a name for a really large home. She also told me that my thinking through the question was very good, even though I had selected an incorrect answer.

I have never forgot. And I now look for ambiguity, from a student point of view, in test questions.

The local paper recently printed a few sample items Arizona schools claim they believe every sixth grader must know. Here is one. “Read the following phrase from the poem: Salty sausages and sweet syrup

This is an example of which element of poetry?
A> alliteration
B> onomatopoeia
C> rhythm
D> repetition”

Forget that similar questions appear in high school literature textbooks. The state of Arizona has decreed that sixth graders should know the answer. Never mind that most adults have forgotten the answer, or have forgotten what the other choices might be as poetry elements, if they ever knew. Or needed to know.

So, imagine that you are a sixth grader, not yet twelve years old, less than 144 months of life coursing through your young body. Let’s say you are relatively bright and know even more than the test asks. You repeat the poetic phrase in your head a few times. There is a definite rhythm. Hmmm. Is the answer “C”?

But four of the five words begin with the letter “s.” Surely the answer is “repetition,” because the “s” sound is repeated so often. And also, you bright little sixth grader, you know that sausage, by its nature is salty. Syrup is sweet. Therefore “salty sausages” seems almost what the teacher introduced as “redundant”; “sweet syrup” seems the same. You remember that redundancy is a kind of repetition. The answer must be “D --repetition.”

Wait. There was something about repeating initial sounds of words close together. “Initial sounds.” That must be the first sounds of the words, the sounds of their initials. It wasn’t just repetition. What was it? Maybe “onomatopoeia”? No, that means a word that sounds a little like its meaning, such as “buzz.” So was that element of poetry called “alliteration?” Maybe. Or “assonance?” But “assonance” isn’t one of the choices. They have similar meanings, though. Something about sounds in the words.

There is so much repetition in that phrase, and of two different kinds, both structure and meaning, that with a high level of sixth grade logic, you decide to settle on “D - - repetition.”

The test-correcting machine will mark it wrong. People who never met you will interpret the score, but they will not look at the answer you gave in order to understand how you were thinking. Your score may help them decide you are mentally slow for your grade level. Slower than the kids who lucky-guessed the correct answer and slower than those who had memorized the definition of “alliteration,” but perhaps remembered nothing about “redundant” and “assonance” and “onomatopoeia,” and how to think through a multiple choice question.

The classroom teacher and the principal would know better, if they had the chance to go over the mandated standardized tests given to pupils they know, but whom the test makers do not. A situation like this could help people make a case for schools being given back to the communities and their control back to the teachers and administrators. Except that so many of those people have fallen for the nonsense of the federal, “No Child Left Behind” act, designed to produce cookie-cutter kids who can all recall the same trivia, but who may not have learned to think.

Anyway, do you remember the math teachers who insisted you show your work and not simply record the answers to the problems? One enlightened teacher gave partial credit for knowing the procedure, even if you made a simple calculation error.

Perhaps if we want to know how our students think, as well as what they can recall, we ought to ask them to “show their work” when they answer standardized reading questions or ones about the elements of poetry, for just two examples. Or we could give the schools and testing back to local educators.

Maybe, however, America wants schools to indoctrinate rather than to teach thinking; that is, perhaps we now believe recalling facts in order to answer test questions is proof of thinking and learning. If that is what we want, then standardized test scores might be proof that teachers have “indoctrinated.”

By the way, did you know that older first brother Neil Bush heads a company developing and selling computer software to parents, schools, and learning centers to help kids pass those mandated standards? Yes, that Neil Bush. The one whose mother gave money to a hurricane Katrina relief fund with the stipulation that it be used to buy software from his company for kids in the storm’s wake. The Bush brother who was divorced after it came out he had traveled often to China as a political “consultant” and was given women at his hotel door to help the “givers” gain the ear of his brother. Right. That Neil Bush, who was involved, but never blamed, for his part in the failure of the Savings and Loans a few years back that cost taxpayers billions. That’s the guy, getting rich from the federal testing mandate promoted by his brother. One report dared reveal that his software company was initially set up and financed by Arab friends of the Bush family. I’d love to see sample questions from his company’s software. I’ll bet there is ambiguity there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, if only there were more test ranters like you out there!

4/01/2006 8:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Restoring ethics, integrity, and values to government! "I'm a uniter, not a divider."

4/01/2006 11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting thinking you started me doing. thanks.

4/02/2006 3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cool thinking

4/03/2006 10:14 AM  
Blogger Kirk Johnson said...

Excellent post, dana. This is great stuff. I'm going to bookmark your blog.

I'm questioning a lot about public education right now. My fairly bright sons don't enjoy school very much. My 7-year old already thinks it is boring. That a well-funded institution run by educated adults cannot keep an inquisitive 7 year old engaged is troubling, to say the least.

4/06/2006 9:29 AM  
Blogger Kirk Johnson said...

BTW, dana, I wrote a little in my blog "The Kitchen Sink" about a Washington Post editorial you might find interesting.

4/06/2006 9:59 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

I feel for your concerns, Kirk, as I am a parent of grown children and a retired educator. So often what those advocating more money for education do is lose support by not being specific about what the money OUGHT (in my opinion) to be used for.

I am for higher teacher salaries, yes. With a coresponding raise of general teacher-expected competence/talent levels. So it would take years to get a turn-over staff with higher abilities than the current average, perhaps. Thankfully there are, today, many teachers of exceptional talent and ability. It is unfortunate that critics so often remember the one or two who were not exceptional in their own lives. Anyway, let's improve the average, however long it takes. Schools will still be around in years to come. A long-term improvement plan is better than no plan.

But money also could be used to lower class sizes! Do whatever it takes. More schools, more rooms, more teachers. But lower the class sizes significantly so that teachers and pupils can know one another and interact daily. Going from 30 to 28 in a room is an improvement. But hardly significant. Let's aim at classes of fifteen or fewer in the grades.

Elementary students, especially, should be in love with learning, school, and their teachers. Where they are not, it is a good bet that classes are crowded, teachers are harried,or the curriculum is mandated from above, or all three.

My son said years after his schooling had ended, "Dad, except for sports, there is nothing in the curriculum for boys." Perhaps he exaggerates or has a faulty memory. But even allowing for all that, he may also have a point.

Think about the structure of the typical elementary school and curriculum. Women teachers in nearly every classrom. Curriculum and classroom procedures and lessons designed, in general, to appeal to one who is willing to sit quietly and perform sometimes boring or repetitive tasks to please the woman teacher.

That is not a definition of the typical boy, but it fits a typical female pupil rather well, all too often.

The boistrous, bored boy too often is sent to remedial reading and given ridalin. Hardly evidence of successful teaching techniques.

For years we have heard excellent arguments about eliminating stereotypical choices for girls and giving them a full range of job choices, for eliminating stereotypical attitudes about their abilities and desires in the fields of science and math, for example. The arguments have brought about some improvements, and one hopes progress continues.

But we now need arguments for eliminating stereotyping boys in school. Why shouldn't men be kindergarten teachers? Why not musicians, artists librarians, teachers, nurses, cooks, secretaries, office managers, etc?

Do we want girls to have access to once typically male jobs but not boys to have access to "typical" female jobs? Why not?

Are we really so motivated by economics that it is the pay of male scientists and engineers that we want for girls, and not really the careers in science and math?

Whatever. We need to talk about it.

We need to bring new awareness of boys' minds, needs, interests,and ways of learning to classrooms. Perhaps we need to redefine " the mature elementary pupil."

Perhaps the one willing to sit quietly, hands folded, doing as told is not the mature one in the classroom. Perhaps the one fidgeting from boredom, interested in everything going on around the room, the one leaping from one activity to another with enthusiasm (and noisy appreciation) is the mature youngster. Have I just reversed the stereotypical definition of mature (girl) and immature (boy) ?

Whatever, as I keep saying. But let's do whatever it takes to turn both boys and girls on to education and give all of life's possibilities to both sexes as potential goals.

I have a blog post or two in the archives that says some of this, too.

I do go on! Good to find your blog and your rants, as well!

Cheers, Dana

4/06/2006 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post and your response to "Kirk." What can we do about "That Neil Bush?"

4/07/2006 8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read the response to Kirk; forwarded it to six parents of boys.

4/09/2006 7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read the response to Kirk; forwarded it to six parents of boys.

4/09/2006 7:47 AM  
Anonymous Ogden Smapp said...

Your recollections sparked a memory from my grade school experience: We had touched upon the Washington Monument in our class discussions. At the time, my father was building a basement under our house and I was very much into construction materials and methods, so I raised my hand and asked if the monument was constructed of reinforced concrete.

It must have been too asdtute for a 12 year old to know such things, because the teacher brushed off the question, saying that it was "irrelevant".

What a missed opportunity! Had she been a TEACHER, she would have siezed the opportunity to explain that it is the tallest free-standing all masonry structure in the world, and that the sharp difference in the color of the stone was because of the halted constructuin during a funding crisis and that there is an aluminum cap at the apex, which at the time of its casting, was a very rare metal, and so on.

But she thought my inquiry was "irrelevant". that rebuff has lingered in my memory ever since, for lo, these 48 years hence.

What good is the SAT tests and all the other tests, if the basic teaching is absent in the first place?

America's schools teach to the norm, and the extremes of the bell curve, the slow learners and the gifted, often go unrecognized and ignored.

Long after my high school years I was tested with an IQ of 128. Not brilliant, but certainly holding promise. I spent my life in the trades because I was a military brat and lacked the funds to exploit my abilities. I was bored to tears with the curriculum in high school, yet made a rudementary electron accellerator for my science fair project.

No scholarship for me because I carried a "D" average from lack of effort borne of abject boredom. It wasn't until 10 years later that I finally financed my own way to community college and got an associate's degree. I was rebuffed at attending further college because I lacked appropriate foreign language credits.

So the system slammed yet another door on a mind that could have held great promise in my chosen field, but for bureaucratic elitism.

The system is hopelessly broken and as long as bureaucrats controll the curriculum and maintain the status quo, America will continue to fall behind in comparison to Europe and The Occident.

4/09/2006 10:44 AM  
Blogger Valdez said...

You're my hero!!! ;-)

(my sentiments EXACTLY!) good to know there are fellow souls out there!

4/18/2006 11:45 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

A NEW YORK TIMES article by Tamar Lewin in my Phoenix paper today tells of more girls than boys graduating from h.s. I won't quote it all, but the difference is significant, and kids from the same family also show up with girls graduating and boys not. That gives doubt to the family situation being a cause.

Head of the study, Jay Greene, is quoted in the last sentence of the piece in my paper: "We've seen that high school girls outperform boys on other measures, and they're all symptoms of the same disease."

But the article fials to define the "disease." Let's see; not poverty, family background, race, (though minorities drop out more than whites) or community. Hmmm. That leaves school design, curriculum, teaching methods, teacher attitudes and expectations, teacher training, and even society expectations. Let's talk about all that!

Your teacher, Ogden, undoubtedly did not know the information about the structure; so, she could not have told the class what you say in your note above.

She may have been trained to believe that teachers should not admit they do not know. But what a teachable moment she let slip. "I don't know the answer to that, Ogden. Does anyone else? ... Well, then, how could we find out?" Etc. And she might have stimulated you or others to do a bit of research and report back at a later time.

Too bad that happened to you. A lingering memory,eh?

And Valdez, I have always wanted to be someone's "hero." Thanks for that! (chuckles here.) And thanks for the visit and response.

Cheers to all!

4/19/2006 2:23 PM  
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