Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Questions Students Face on Standardized Tests

My students are getting ready for their end-of-course exams.  Do you know what it takes to pass?

It is April, which means students all around Tennessee are getting ready to take their state-administered end-of-course exams.  If you are of a certain age, or went to a private high school, you probably don't understand what that means.  It means that my students are forced to take a test that reputedly covers the skills that the teacher (that's me!) should have covered during the course of English III.  There are 65 questions on this test, and you only get one shot at it.

Furthermore, the state will score your work and send it back to you teacher, who will calculate that score as 25% of your semester grade.  These scores will be used to judge the proficiency of the student, the teacher, the school, and the school district.  My school was nearly closed in July due to poor standardized scores in math, and the negative publicity about our scores and the threat of closure caused parents to pull students out of the school, which lead to lower funding from the city and ultimately major sacrifices on part of everyone who works here.

For the first time in my eleven years of teaching, my students will be taking one of these, and I really have no idea how they are going to do on the test.  I know that they've learned a lot since I met them in August, and they've read some important authors such as Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, Phillis Wheatley, Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, and more.  But I haven't taught them how to beat this test.  So I took it with them, and here's what I found: it's not fair.  

Take the question at the start of this blog.  Did you look carefully at it?  If not, here it is again. 

Hmm.  What an interesting, thought-provoking answer.  I could probably write an essay explaining why I chose two, three, or even all of the choices.  I even asked my colleagues, all intelligent, college-educated, highly qualified teachers.  Here's how our conversation went:

ME:   Just for fun, everyone look at #21 on page 20 and tell me your answer.  This is an example of why the EOC is an unfair test that does not really measure what teachers teach in their classes.

COLLEAGUE 1: I would say A or B.

COLLEAGUE 2: My vote is D.  Never mind, I went somewhere else with that.

COLLEAGUE 3: Well, I can see why [COLLEAGUE 2] picked D as well,  with the lady being in a wheelchair, her natural state.  Or even why a student would pick C, because there's the machinery she's using to try to win the race.  Perhaps I think too much, however. 

ME:  No, you're exactly right.  I say the answer is B, but it's far too ambigious and open to interpretation to be used as a multiple-choice question on a high-stakes test.

You probably want to know what the answer to this question is, right?  Well, I'm not going to tell you.  I'm going to let this question sit around and antagonize you the way it has done to my students and me.  (Feel free to answer in the comments, though.)

Well, that's just one question, right?  Yes, it is just one, but this test is so high-stakes that even one question can have a marked difference in a child's score for the semester.  This test is worth 25% of the semester grade, and this is 1/65th of the test, so this one question determines 0.38% of the grade for the semester!  When I took this test with my students, I missed 9 of the 65 questions (and I took exception to almost every wrong answer I received.)  That's 3.4 points off the top of my semester average, which would really hurt if I was sitting on a 73 D and needed those points to pass for the semester or year.  It could change the direction of my entire education.  (UPDATE: This part is probably inaccurate.)

Ask yourself this: What is this test question asking our students?  It is the teacher's job, I fully agree, to teach the student the difference between internal and external conflict, and every student should know the difference between person vs. person conflict and person vs. self conflict.  But where is the value in showing a picture of a woman in a wheelchair, which only exacerbates the ambiguity of the photograph? If you want to test if a student knows the meaning of person vs. person conflict, why not show two non-disabled runners?  If you want to show person vs. self conflict, why not have a wheelchair-bound woman overcoming an obstacle in solitude?

Ready for another question?  Try this one.

Stumped?  Now, keep in mind that this question is in the end-of-course exam for English III, and if students get it wrong, it will reflect on how well I taught them over the course of the year.

So, what's the answer?  I stared at this one for a long time, conscious of the time ticking away as I puzzled over it.  What kind of database?  What is this job?  This is what I like to call a "what am I thinking?" question, in which the student is supposed to be able to read the teacher's mind and get it right.

If it were up to me to present information to someone like the aforementioned Sandra, I would do it in an email.  The email can include links to useful pages or youtube clips, and can be instantly forwarded or archived.  If the database is online, it would be very easy to send her to the right webpages from my email.

The correct answer is H.  I got it wrong.

I will share just one more test item with you.  It involves the three types of irony, which is something I cover in my class every year.  Come visit my students and ask them to tell you the difference between verbal and situational irony, and they will set you straight.  (I even wrote a poem about it.)  

But this is how they choose to evaluate students on the topic:

I got this answer right, as did many of my students, because we were confident we knew the answer.  We were able to quickly recall what irony was and get a general idea of the different kinds of irony.  We maybe even thought of a quick example for each kind.  After a little reflection, we realized that the sentence quoted does not show any kind of irony at all; it's just a random sentence pulled from the selection.  The question is not asking about the different types of irony--it's only asking if you can spot a decoy question.

But what about the students who stumbled, faltered, and second-guessed themselves?  They remembered that I taught them the three kinds of irony, but they were not confident enough to pick D.  Maybe they were so trained into trying to read the minds of the test-takers that they picked B, got it wrong, and were labeled as a failure.  

Somebody is failing, but I don't think it's my students.

(To see an entire practice test, click here.  Warning--it comes up in a large pdf file.)


  1. I'm going with person v person as the primary conflict, though I've not heard that term before, since the picture depicts a race between people. Person v self is also a good choice if you ask me.

    What bothers me is that the question uses a photo instead of a piece of writing. What's with that. Do you spend a lot of time working with photo's.

    The tests are out of control at this point. I've ignored them for years myself. I'm ignoring them again this year since we're switching to new standards next year.

    But I do like how they are part of your students overall grades. They have nothing to do with my students grades at all and they know it. For them, it's just a big waste of time.

  2. Wow. Just wow. What a crock. I'm glad I don't have to take that test. I think I would fail miserably. Mind you, I was an A honors English student in high school and am now finishing my second bachelor's degree. I can't believe it's 25% of their grade! I hope they all guessed well enough to pull through.

  3. Going person vs. person because the primary conflict is a race.

    I had to take "achievement" tests when I was growing up all the time though I never saw the score. I was notoriously bad at any kind of question with multiple choice selections when one answer is "all" or "none" of the above. I still have issues, I almost failed my driver test for these reasons. Actually, I take that back, I did fail it, but the dude behind the counter was nice enough to mark is as a pass.

  4. You guys who said "person vs. person" are correct! Well done.

    James--what you said about the fact that they have to interpret visuals is spot on. Our class used to be called "English." Then it became "language arts." I suggest we change it to "media awareness" just so that we're not kidding ourselves.