Are You Smarter Than A 10th-Grader?

No, it’s not a game show.

Instead, there’s been a lot of talk in education circles lately about the horrible fashion in which students and, by extension, principals and teachers are being judged. By the results of standardized tests of achievement.

That is, for you North Carolina residents, the End of Grade testing. Florida parents might know it as the FCAT, or Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. It’s a standardized test in which students bubble answers in on a separate sheet of paper, which then is run through a scantron to determine the score.

Personally, I don’t mind these sorts of things. I usually do pretty good at them. But I am something of an exception. There are some people for whom these tests are absolutely impossible. I’m talking about very smart individuals, but dudes and dudettes who don’t have the right wiring in their brain for these sorts of things.

Not to mention the poor kids who have ADD or ADHD and find it almost impossible to sit still and concentrate for the several hours these tests take. And if students don’t do all that well on these tests, then teachers and principals can be judged to have not done their work and might get pay cuts or be fired.

Not only do I hate that very idea, I think it’s appallingly unfair. If kids don’t pass these tests, they are not allowed to move on to the next grade. Which makes these tests astonishingly important and put all sorts of pressure on young minds not necessarily ready for that sort of problem.

And then there’s the whole issue of whether or not these tests can be culture-neutral so they aren’t biased against different segments of society. I used to think that last concern was a bit overhyped, but, after spending a year as a Title I Tutor at Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, I think it’s, if anything, underhyped.

There’s also a growing movement among people to have these tests scrapped because they don’t actually measure any useful knowledge. In an article by Marion Brady, a school board member talks about the results he received when he took a test meant for 10th graders.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.”

What’s worse, he continues, is that scores of that sort would have turned him away from the life he lives today, in which he holds multiple doctorates and other degrees, supervises thousands of employees and oversees a massively large budget.

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.” 

So I did what he did. The Washington Post linked to two seven-question sections from the FCAT. (Here’s a link to the reading test, and her’s a link to the math test.) I took them both. I scored perfectly on the reading and five out of seven on the math, mostly because I was careless on both the misses. I knew the procedure for finding the answer, but didn’t pay attention to what the question actually asked.

Which now makes me wonder about the school board member we talked about before. Still, I understand his point. In most jobs, you won’t have to know how to find the correct number of degrees in an angle, or interpret poetry. What I think he might be confusing is, these tests are supposed to be testing your ability to think, and finding the right answer is only part of the solution.

Unfortunately, all that matters is the right answer. Don’t get that, and you dudes are out on your ear.

This kind of pressure must be appalling to these kids. There must be some other way we can make sure the young dudes and dudettes in school are getting the education they need to learn to think well on their own, and measure that without these sorts of all-or-nothing tests.

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