What BOE member’s test scores prove

“Multiple Choice” by Vivre available from http://www.sxc.hu/

A discussion arising from a blog posting early this month on “The Answer Sheet” at The Washington Post has the education community by the ears.

The initial post, “When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids,”  was written by Marion Brady about the experience of a friend who is a Florida school board member. The friend said he’d take the Florida standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders and make his scores public.

Brady described the test-taker as a successful man with an expensive home, condo in the Caribbean, influential friends, and “enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities.”

Later the friend was revealed to be Rick Roach, a member of  Orange County, FL, school board. After he got his scores, Roach said:

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%.

“The Answer Sheet” followed up the initial post by offering readers an opportunity to take a subset of questions from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for 10th grade that gave Roach so much difficulty.

I couldn’t resist the challenge. I took the Reading Quiz  and the  Math Quiz.

FYI, my education is almost identical to Roach’s. Like him, I have a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and additional graduate work (16 hours for me compared to only 15 for him.)  I suspect we’re roughly the same age. We do differ, however, in our work experiences: his career has been primarily in education; I’ve worked in several other sectors as well.

The seven reading questions were based on two contemporary poems. They contained a few polysyllabic words such as individual, threatening, and nurturing, but on the whole the language was what I consider elementary school vocabulary.

Since Roach had said three of the four answers were “pretty good,” I kept looking for trick questions. I thought in most cases two of the four were patently absurd. I got all the questions correct.

The math was a bit harder.  I can see how someone could be frightened off by the problems that looked nothing like the kinds of math questions I remember from high school.  One of the five sample questions required elementary algebra, which I use a couple times a week. The other four questions could be answered with arithmetic, logic, and knowing that the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees.

Admittedly, I didn’t take the entire test that Roach took. Perhaps the 12 questions chosen for The Washington Post piece were the easiest ones of the FCAT, but I didn’t have any difficulty answering either the math or the reading questions correctly. And the skills the FCAT questions required are skills I use every day.

If Roach’s experience shows how bad the FCAT is, does mine show how good it is?

No.

The experiences of two individuals are not adequate samples from which to draw conclusions about the FCAT or any other test. It might be wonderful, or it might be horrible; there’s no way to know anything about the value of a test based on scores of two individuals.

It worries me that people who should know better are trying to make a case for eliminating standardized testing based on Roach’s example. If the FCAT or any other test does not measure what it’s supposed to measure—what is FCAT supposed to measure?—then it certainly should not be used.  But rather than say it shouldn’t be used because one school board member couldn’t answer the questions, let’s be sure we have more than just one anecdote.

Moreover, in the search for a poster child for the anti-testing movement, Roach is probably not the optimal choice. While the anti-testing community can argue that Roach’s experience shows the test is absurdly difficult, the pro-testing community could argue based on Roach’s experience that the field of education is one place where someone who can’t do 10th grade work can make enough money to get an  expensive home, a condo in the Caribbean, influential friends, and plenty of free time.

If a group of education advocates is going to use Roach’s experience to argue that standardized testing should be eliminated (they’re already at it), I think they had better prepare themselves to see bumper stickers that say:

School attendance has social value

A discussion swirling around Twitter today got me thinking about school attendance.

Several people said that school attendance was foundational for school achievement. I’m sure people cannot achieve in school unless they are there, just as I could not walk on the moon without being on the moon. However, you don’t have to look too hard to find people who have become educational achievers without ever being in school. There is no cause-effect relationship between seat time and scholarship.

School attendance does, however, have one societal value that educators sometimes overlook: Showing up for school is an indicator of whether a person is likely to show up for work after they leave school for a job.

Years ago I directed an online summer program for  students who had failed at least two eighth grade classes and were seen by their school counselors as likely high school dropouts.

Each morning when I connected the program sites, there was one student who was always at her site. I’ll call her Sue, though that was not her name. Sue was not outstanding in any way, except for her reliability.

Nearly every morning after I greeted the site teacher, I said hello to the girl, often accompanying my greeting with a comment like, “We can count on Sue’s being in class on time.”

At the end of the program, when students were asked what was the best part of the program, Sue said the best thing was being praised for being on time.

The story didn’t end with her feeling good.

Sue went on to graduate with her class.

I’m sure that we didn’t teach Sue any academic content that made the difference between a dropout and a graduate.  What made a difference was discovering there was something she could do well: she could show up.

Showing up is a small thing unless you happen to be an employer. In that case, an average Sue who shows up is superior to a genius who goofs off.