I hope you won't object to a post not specifically on point about energy or transmission or connectivity. But I think it gets directly at how we understand those topics, so I think it's worth mentioning.
Everybody has been reading and posting and cross-posting and commenting on this post, in the blog of Valerie Strauss, who writes The Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post. In it Strauss allows Marion Brady, an educator living in Florida, to guest post, and Brady talks about a friend of his, Rick Roach, on the board of education in Orange County, Florida. He has, as Strauss says, "two masters degrees: in education and educational psychology. He has trained over 18,000 educators in classroom management and course delivery skills in six eastern states over the last 25 years."
Brady's post describes how Roach, to better understand the tests his students were constantly having to face, took a "version of the state standardized test and was horrified at what he found," as Strauss says. Roach says he couldn't answer a single one of the math questions but was able to guess right on one-sixth of them. He also says on the reading portion of the test he got a score of 62 percent.
The conclusion is simple: the tests make no sense; they test the wrong things; they don't accurately reflect a student's capacities, achievements, or aptitude for study. It's a listing of problems expressing a distrust of the current educational focus on testing that's familiar -- Brady himself wrote a long guest post for Strauss on November 1 2011 on that exact topic, listing the many reasons educators resist test-based programs like No Child Left Behind.
I couldn't agree more. A test is one measure among many, some kids test better than others, I went to school with tons of kids who tested lousy but learned great, blah blah blah. You've heard it all before, and as it happens I agree with it.
But that's testing, not learning. Because reading the posts and the ancillary materials, I got worried about something much simpler: If a man with two masters degrees can't answer questions designed for fourth- and eighth-graders, where does the problem lie? Fortunately the column links to a series of math questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Well, I took the six sample questions. And as much as I hate this teaching-to-test business that every single teacher in the country is perfectly justifiably railing against, I think if we've got people with multiple advanced degrees who can't answer these questions, problems getting kids to learn math are far from new.
Six problems. Three for fourth graders: the first asks you to solve a multiplication problem within parentheses, then divide the result by a whole number. The second gives you a rate of sale and an amount of items and asks you a simple question about how long the items might last. The third gives you three types of objects, tells you the number of each, and asks you to determine the probability of pulling out an object of a particular type with your eyes closed.
I mean no disrespect: but if you get any of those wrong, the problem is not with the test, or even with the colleges that granted you your advanced or undergraduate degrees. The problem lies with your middle school, not with today's middle schools.
Then three from the eighth grade: one asks you to recognize the decimal expression of a fraction expressed verbally: eight-thousandths. Still with us? The next asks you to take a weekly pay rate, divide it by hours, and multiply the result by a different number of hours. The final question asks you to take a cartesian coordinate and tell where it will be if it is "reflected over the y-axis," which could conceivably throw you for a moment, though only for a moment: how many different things could that reflection mean, and even if you've forgotten which axis is the x, you've got pretty good odds if you guess, and given that this is a multiple choice, the guess isn't hard.
I don't mean to be sarcastic. But people complaining about the hardness of math questions is a repeating theme in our culture, and it's enraging. I was a reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh for several years, and during the mid-1990s management took the notion of giving all reporters a math test. Such complaining -- and such failure rates! Complaining from the food writer; from the sportswriters; from the business writers. All people who use math probably in every paragraph, certainly in every story. And what reporter doesn't have to figure out an age, a date range, a salary percentage, a revenue comparison? It's an astonishing thing for a reporter to say, but newsroom management was RIGHT. It was the 90s; they hadn't yet completely lost the thread.
I commonly write about science now, so for me anyhow math is a given. But my most recent book was about infrastructure -- about flow rates of stormwater and freshwater and wastewater. About paving depths and composite percentages, about traffic light timing and cell phone frequency and ... well, I think I've made my point. And it's not just me as a writer dealing with this stuff, or even my readers -- it's taxpayers, having to decide whether funds will actually pay for needed repairs; what portion of bandwidth we ought to sell to broadcasters and carriers; and on and on. It's a math-first world, and when someone says they can't pass a math test designed for primary school students, I worry.
It's not that I'm not just as repelled as everyone else by the dumb-assery of teaching to the test and all the stuff currently ruining the lives of teachers and students. It's just that if these math problems are too hard for average adults, much less adults with degrees -- and certainly these weren't the exact ones that Roach took, but to be sure they were problems like them -- we may be focusing on the wrong problem. If eighth graders -- hell if people with multiple advanced degrees -- don't know what that place is three spots to the right of the decimal, we've got much bigger problems than wrong-headed educational standards.
I've got no answers. But in all the discussion about the tests, I think it's worth remembering that however we test it, however we measure it, this is still stuff we've got to know. And it appears to be stuff we don't know now. The tests aren't the right solution. But that doesn't mean there isn't a problem, or that the problem is new.