Houston, We have a Problem

Jerry Seinfeld joked that guys care about “what else is on” rather what they’re currently watching.  Part of the joy of flipping is recognizing, stopping, and watching movies scenes.  In Rocky (I-IV), I have to watch the training scenes; in Big, I am a sucker for the giant keyboard scene. I love Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, or Coming to America.  I end up watching most of Shawshank Redemption or The Godfather or Usual Suspects when they’re on.  I’ll even admit movies like The Replacements or You Got Mail will suck me in, at least for a scene or until the commercial.

When I think of testing in education though, I think of one scene, in one movie.  In Apollo 13, when the CO2 levels are reaching a critical and deadly level, a team of engineers is tasked with coming up with a way to fit a square junction into a round hole.  When I see this scene, I always think that this is a real test.  This is what I would want kids to be able to do.

Identify the problem, work with what you have, and find a solution.  How would you grade this test?  By evaluating if the student understood the problem, applied previous learned knowledge, and provided a possible solution.  This kind of test would have real world application; a test like this would prepare students for issues they would deal with in the rest of their lives. Sadly, it is also the kind of test that can’t be graded via scantron.  This means that it doesn’t have a place in our schools.

Upon starting in her new classroom, my wife noticed a few things among her new fourth grade students.  First, the students were very familiar with multiple-choice test and had strategies to decipher the proper answers.  The second trait was that the students were poor writers.  Having come from a higher grade, she expected some drop off; however, her new students struggled to answer any questions in a free response form.  In contrast, the kids at her old school were more than capable of communicating through writing.  So why such a difference?

Well, in our previous locale, the state test had free response questions that required the students to be able to compose an adequate answer to the series of questions.   The answers were then graded by impartial teachers during the summer and the results reported the following fall.

In contrast, the new state uses only multiple choice tests allowing fast processing and immediate identification of student deficiencies.  In fact, the new state also permits retests of students.  Retesting allows teachers to determine what areas the child struggled in and give further instruction in that area.  Retesting likely results in higher scores.  So naturally, in deciding federal education funding, these two states are compared merely on these “equivalent” test scores.

So can you see what has happened?  In one state, where free response is required, the students are better able to communicate via writing.  In the other state, where only multiple choice questions are on the state test, the students excel at multiple choice tests, employing a variety of test taking strategies to decipher the answers.  These students are terrible at communicating through writing, and when my wife gives them free response questions, they struggle to come up with any answers.  On the other hand, she freely admits that they are much better test takers than the kids at her previous schools.

So how does this make you feel about the Apollo 13 test?  Technically, the answers were all given (when they dumped all the stuff on the table).  Which group of students would you feel more comfortable in answering that question?

Don’t worry though, the old state has shifted to only multiple choice test too. It is too expensive to have teachers grade the tests and this system allows students to be retested like in other states.  I guess this will guarantee equivalent educations . . . at least in public schools.


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