Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The School Board Member and the Standardized Test

About three weeks ago, a Washington Post blog had an item about a school board member in Florida who had tried the standardized tests given to the state's 10th graders. He did miserably. He knew none of the answers on the math portion, he wrote, but guessed 10 answers correctly out of 60. He scored a 62% on the reading portion. The man wrote, among other things
It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.
I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.
 I did not really see how somebody with a bachelor of science degree could do so poorly on the math test. I downloaded the 2006 test book and answer key from the Florida Department of Education site, and yesterday tried the test. I managed to get 49 out of 58 correct. At 84% this is not as well as I'd like to do, but apparently it would qualify as high performance. (Yes, for a 10th grader, which I was 40 years and 40 pounds ago.)

What did I learn?
  • It has been a long time since Algebra II.
  • I'm careless. In one analytic geometry question I calculated the y in (1,y) rather than the x in (x, 1); in another problem I got the three constituents of the sum correct, and added them wrong, perhaps misreading my handwriting; I calculated a percent remaining when I should have calculated the percent of decrease.
Was the math such as is necessary to my daily work? (Computer programming and administration, since you asked.) Yes, some of it. I don't use plane geometry or analytic geometry. I do use some basic algebra now and then, and do need to know some basic finite math such as is on the test. I don't use Venn diagrams, but the notions of intersection, union, and difference are fundamental..

How many others find it necessary? I don't know. I can imagine that a lot of people would find much of it useful. The first question on the test I took is comparable to comparing cell phone plans--better to pay more $x for the plan with n minutes included and m cents/minute beyond,  $x+y for n+z minutes included and m cents/minute beyond? Card players and other gamblers ought to know the ways in which subsets can be chosen from sets.

The underlying question is, What shall we teach? That's one for another day.


  1. Your post inspired me to go to the website and try this myself. I downloaded the 10th-grade Florida math test from 2004.

    Now, I was an English major. Except for one rudimentary "math for humanities types" course in 1990, I haven't had a math class since high-school geometry 24 years ago. I've never used math for any job I've ever had. But after spending 90 minutes on the test, I got 40 out of 50 right.

    When that school administrator says he couldn't answer any of the questions without guessing, he's confessing a more profound ignorance than he realizes. I sure didn't remember how to calculate the volume of a cylinder or a cone, but I got those questions right, because, jeez, the formulae are right there on the opening pages!

    I agree with you that the concepts reinforced by the test seem like they'd have daily applications: shopping, managing money, planning home or garden projects, running even the smallest business...

  2. I am glad to hear what you say.

    Think of the influence of other people's calculations: the business decisions made on the basis of a spreadsheet, the government budget projections offered by various parties. It would be well to have at least the option to spot-check the calculations.