So I read this article this morning about a school board member who took versions of his state’s standardized math and reading tests and had a rude awakening.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “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% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “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 help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“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.”

Now, I’ll tell you from the outset that I’m not a fan of these standardized tests, and I don’t like all the emphasis that is placed upon them, and if I were making a list of “Bad Things That Came out of the George W. Bush Administration,” No Child Left Behind would probably crack my top two. (I mean, don’t get me wrong; ordinarily, if teachers’ unions oppose something, I’m inclined to think it must be a good idea. Just not in this case. There are ways of assessing whether or not teachers are competent and doing a good job. None of these assessments can be performed long-distance by Washington bureaucrats.) So that’s where I’m coming from. But this article left me just a tad befuddled. We’re talking about an educated adult–two master’s degrees–with a successful business career, and he couldn’t pass a math test designed for a tenth grader. And he just barely passed the reading test. And the clear implication is that these tests must be unreasonably difficult or require highly specialized knowledge. This, forgive me, just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that these tests are unreasonably difficult or require highly specialized knowledge. It just seems very unlikely. Because tenth graders take them, yes? And at least a handful must do well, and another handful must not embarrass themselves, either–or no one in this cat’s school district would be graduating or going to college. Of course, when you’re in high school, studying this stuff every day, the material will be fresh in your head. I would expect a smart high schooler to do better than the average adult. I might even expect an average high schooler to do better than the average adult. But I would still expect an educated adult with two master’s degrees and a successful business career to do better than a high schooler who hadn’t paid attention in class since they stopped putting stickers on his worksheets.

I mean, I’ve been out of school for a long time. I know that I’ve forgotten quite a bit of the math I learned in the past. I would not be able to pass a calculus test without some serious review. My trigonometry is equally sketchy. But if you’d asked me before I’d read this article if I thought I could pass a math test designed for tenth graders–not ace, mind you, but pass–I would have said, “Absolutely.” And if you’d asked me if I could do better than 62% on a reading test designed for tenth graders, I would have been insulted. I mean, I read every day. That part of the brain still knows what it’s doing. Of course I could do better than 62%. What is that, a joke?

So yes, this article left me befuddled because I can only come up with the following explanations for why this gentleman did so poorly on the standardized tests that he took:

1. The tenth grade math test is all advanced math. The tenth grade reading test is based largely on selections of William Faulkner’s prose.

2. The tenth grade tests are comprised primarily of trick questions.

3. The adult in question faked his way through graduate school–twice!–and only thinks he understands the complex data he’s confronted with at his job (really, his assistant is doing all the work).

4. The adult in question was drunk the morning he took his tests.

5. I’m not nearly as bright as I think I am.

I think these are all pretty far-fetched conclusions (yes, even #5), so naturally, I’m dissatisfied. I will not be able to understand this story at all until I find out what exactly is on these tests. I do find it interesting that no matter which link you follow in this article–and I followed link after link which led to other links which led to other links–you only get more articles about how bogus these tests are, but no information on what actually happens during one of these tests–nothing that would give me some clue as to why a reasonably well-educated adult wouldn’t know any of the answers on the math test and couldn’t muster more than 62% on the reading test. (A reading test.) It just does. not. make. sense.

Later in the article, the adult-in-question says, “It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

He continues: “It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?”

This is an interesting point. I’m the first person to argue that everyone who is not mentally incompetent should learn algebra. (Well, maybe not the first, but at least the second or third.) But I’m also the first to concede that you may lead a productive life even if you can’t remember how to determine the slope of a line. So let’s say we shouldn’t test tenth graders on whatever esoteric material is covered in this state test, but only on stuff that “relates in some practical way to the requirements of life.” What exactly would that stuff be? I assume it’s stuff that the state doesn’t currently require them to learn, since we’ve just established that these standardized tests are total BS.

If you were charged with writing the state test for tenth graders–the test that, unless I’m mistaken, is supposed to assess a student’s academic competence and/or possibly their career/college readiness–what would you be sure to include on it? Is it important that an adult should also be able to pass it?

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