Why we can't have nice things: How bad were those fourth-grade questions on that newly controversial Common Core test?
In this morning's New York Times, Tamar Lewin tries, and doesn't try, to answer that basic question.
Lewin is discussing a flap which has arisen about an ongoing national standardized test. Repeat—this particular national test is still being administered to students across the country. Despite this fact, a professor at Columbia got herself a snootful and posted some of the questions on line, making it very hard to evaluate students' performance on the test.
The professor had been sent the test questions by a public school teacher. Was something actually wrong with the questions? This is Lewin's full attempt to evaluate that claim:
LEWIN (5/25/16): The teacher who leaked the questions said in the original post that she was providing the material anonymously over concerns about “intense legal ramifications,” but felt compelled to tell others how “the high-stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.”That represents Lewin's full attempt to evaluate the matter at hand. As she continued, Lewin reported the thoughtful, sagacious approach taken by the professor:
The teacher said the questions were inappropriate for fourth graders, exceeding any reasonable grade-level standards.
For example, the teacher wrote, one question prompted children to write an essay using passages from a book on sharks that is considered at sixth- or seventh-grade reading level, and of interest to students in the ninth to 12th grade.
[A spokesperson for the test publisher] said that, although the book in question was for older children, the passage was grade appropriate.
LEWIN (continuing directly): Professor Oyler said in an interview that she had not thought much about the fact that the test was still in use when she posted the questions.Professor Oyler was so mad that she went ahead and posted the questions. She didn't stop to think that the questions were still in active use around the country.
“I was so angry when I saw the items that I wasn’t thinking about protecting the company. I was thinking about the importance of the public knowing what is going on in the name of accountability,” she said.
“These tests can determine which middle school you get into, whether you graduate, whether you’re retained for a year, so people need to know that the criteria we’re using for these huge life decisions are valid,” she said.
If she's been quoted fairly, Professor Oyler can only see her fiery conduct as causing possible harm to the test publisher. She doesn't consider the various school systems which may be trying to administer this test for perfectly valid reasons.
Professor Oyler got a snootful and posted the questions on line. Lewin made little attempt to investigate the basic question at issue. According to Lewin's report, furious partisans are now engaged in this latest culture war skirmish.
We live in an age of partisan fury. We don't speak for Paula Poundstone, but some say this helps explain why we can't have nice things.
A note on difficulty: Were the test questions really "inappropriate for fourth-graders?" We have no idea, and Lewin made little attempt to find out.
She quotes Michael Petrilli, an educational expert, saying the exams at issue are of "exceptionally high quality." As with all things, that may or may not be true.
At any rate, publication of the items will tend to invalidate results of the test. Inevitably, some students will be able to review the questions before they take the test.
This isn't supposed to happen with exams of this type. This is what teachers and principals have sometimes done down through the years when they've decided to cheat on standardized tests. (But only for the good of the children!)
A note on the difficulty of test items:
On some types of standardized tests, some test items are deliberately made very hard. This was true on the old "norm-referenced" tests like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, which were designed to show how well a student performed as compared to a national norm group of students in his grade.
On tests like those, some questions would be designed to be very easy. These were included to draw distinctions among the kids at the lower end of the achievement range—among the kids in (let's say) the lowest twenty percentiles.
Meanwhile, some questions were designed to be so hard that very few students would get them right. Those questions were designed that way to draw distinctions among the highest-achieving students.
Presumably, these Common Core tests weren't designed that way. But if they were, the New York Times would surely never find out.
At any rate, Professor Oyler says she got mad and screwed the pooch on this occasion. Our "educational experts" tend to play it that way.