Adult fails student test… adults somehow surprised by this

According to this blog / article:

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America … took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.

After taking the tests, the guy said (quote abridged):

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%.

I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. … Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

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.

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?

I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

Yeah! That’s what I’ve been saying! As I wrote in this previous post:

… it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him. This is a completely foreign concept to most people working in education, because they tend to just take the actual content for granted.

Part of me is a bit angry that this adult had to take the test in the first place to prove to himself what every sensible student already realizes and has been complaining about for years and years. (“When am I ever going to use this?” Teachers, c’mon, how can you be so comfortable teaching for a living when you can’t even answer this question well enough?) But another part of me is happy that someone out there finally gets it.

The article then goes off an a tangent about teacher accountability, which, I think, is an entirely different issue. Nobody’s really forcing teachers to do what they do, the way parents and teachers can force students to do the dumb tests and assignments they have to do. That is, the article seems to victimize teachers, when the real victims are the students, and teachers are part of the problem.

This related article makes it clearer to me why the first article diverged into the accountability issue. The test in question is the FCAT:

The FCAT, begun in 1998, has been given annually to students in grades 3 to 11 in mathematics, reading, science and writing. It is the bedrock of what is regarded as one of the nation’s most extensive and widely studied school accountability systems.

I can’t really comment too much on the FCAT or the accountability issue; I don’t know all the details. These articles sure make it sound like a really stupid and harmful system. But if it’s an issue of accountability that encourages teachers and others to question their curricula, then I’d argue we need more teacher and administrator accountability. A lot of it. Ideally, we shouldn’t — I believe a good education should be in a students’ hands more than anyone else’s — but if teacher accountability forces teachers into action (or deliberate inaction), then I’m all for it.

The real issue to me is the dumb curricula, forcing students to learn and be tested on skills and information they are not interested in and are never going to use in the real world. (I definitely have other problems with the education system, of course, but this is probably the biggest one.) Although these articles talk about the FCAT specifically, which I’ve never had any experience with, I think curricula problems exist nation-wide. If students are the only ones who have to suffer the effects of bad grades, even while they’re in the least powerful position to do anything about the material they’re tested on, nothing can change until those students themselves get out of school and do something about it, and most of them are more likely to just forget about it. Making teachers suffer for their students’ bad grades should perhaps get them to care a bit more about what specific material students are being forced to deal with, making them realize that, duh, this material is useless and is a waste of time.

Instead of connecting what we learn in school with being successful in the real world, we are doing it in reverse. We are testing first and then kids go into the real world. Whether the information they have learned is important or not becomes secondary. If you really did a study on what math most kids need, I guarantee you could probably dump about 80 percent of math scores and leave high-level math for the kids who want it and will need it.

I think this applies to many more tests than just the FCAT.

Science… and that other thing

(I actually typed this up a few years ago and never posted it for some reason.  I’m not sure I remember my original frame of mind, but I think I still agree with everything I wrote.  I edited it a bit and am posting it now, even though I guess it may seem a bit random.  I found it today while backing up files in safe mode, fearing a hard-drive failure.  But that’s another story.)

This is a huge philosophical topic that there are probably mountains of books about, probably with much more to say and better writing than I provide below, but here are some of my brief thoughts on the matter.

I write about this because I recently heard someone who is semi-religious express doubt in their future church-going habits due to the wonders of science.  It’s probably a laughable thought to most people, theist or not, but even an atheism’s “faith in science” sometimes confuses me, as if he thinks science naturally trumps religion, or that science is as logical as 2+2=4 (as if math=science).

That is, sometimes it seems like people talk about “science” without really considering what it is.  Science really only explains phenomena as much as we can infer cause-and-effect relationships from repeated experiments.  It is still very easy to infer the wrong thing with an incompletely or poorly designed experiment.  Scientific knowledge still depends on one making a choice as to whether or not to take certain experimental results as evidence of a certain inferred relationship.  Simply put, all cause-and-effect relationships are inferred.  That is, all scientific explanations are based on inductive reasoning.  That is, we plan to do something, and we guess what will happen.  Then we do it, and observe what happens.  Then we change variables, and see what happens.  Etc.  We keep doing this over and over.  We predict, experiment, observe, and attempt to explain these observations based on what we’ve learned to make another prediction.  That’s all.

In schools, I think it can be easy to get the wrong notion of science because students spend more time studying the conclusions rather than how those conclusions were decided upon.  Science is not just about pulling conclusions out of the air based only on observations, but nor is it as infallible as a math equation; it still depends on human choices and decisions, and, when there are conflicts, faith.  Of course, it would be impractical to study the history and processes of all experiments, and many things we can intuitively understand anyway, like the effects of gravity and friction.  That is, doing labs every week to learn simple physics equations is a huge waste of time, which is probably why my high school AP Physics teacher, who thought differently, isn’t teaching anymore.  (On another side note, to include creationism in a lesson on evolution is illogical; I’m surprised that certain humans are so dumb as to consider it necessary even to appease certain others.  That said, I’m also annoyed that so many humans don’t even seem to understand what theories of evolution actually state, as if “God didn’t create humans” is one of their principles.)

There are many things we can’t conduct experiments on.  For example, our planet’s temperature.  We can’t make observations about whether or not it’s mostly humans that are causing global warming (if that warming is even considered significant) because we only have one globe and very little data about how temperature fluctuated on the planet before we could measure it.  Or even the question of what will determine whether or not a photon will pass through or be reflected by a beam splitter, or all the other things quantum physicists end up having to use probability for.  We don’t know of (perhaps because we can’t detect or measure) any physical variables that predictably change the outcomes of these quantum experiments.

There are moral statements like: “murder is wrong.”  How do you do an experiment to determine whether or not murder is wrong?  And, just because you can’t do an experiment to answer the question, does that mean you can’t know?  Or what about: “an experiment we don’t know how to do will work.”  The only way to know is to do that experiment.  Or even: “science is right.”  You can’t do an experiment for that.  Science itself can’t even be right or wrong in the first place; science provides the system for which we can draw conclusions that can be right or wrong.  Science, in and of itself, doesn’t do anything.

So, in a way, science and religion are certainly two different things; one is about explaining what will happen when we do certain things, which we use to learn how to do things we want to do (like make a TV); the other is about explaining how and why we are alive and conscious in the first place, and what we should mentally and physically do or not do (like not murdering each other).  If anything, religion, when regarded as a search for and consideration of truth in general, incorporates everything else, including science.  That’s not to say that they can’t be at odds with each other.  They can’t be in general (they need a specific context), but they can be when a human is wrong about one or the other (and it’s much easier to be noticeably wrong about religion, which is why science has the better reputation).  To reject religion in general because certain scientific experiments have allowed us to accurately predict how certain physical phenomena will happen when we do certain things (like make a TV) is illogical.

You can say that religion and science are compatible, but I think that makes the relationship seem too divided, as if they’re mutually exclusive entities, as if they’re friends holding hands.  Rather, I think they’re compatible like a car (religion) is compatible with an air conditioning system.  You don’t really need an air conditioning system, but it certainly feels better to have one, and it will be in your human nature to want one.  But without the rest of the car, you’re not really going anywhere.  (Well, maybe Hell.)

Hugo 3D


I saw Hugo in 3D tonight.  I am now going to praise it a bit:

The film’s use of 3D was the best I’ve ever seen.  Yes, it is the best 3D film yet made.  All those people who complain: “eh, it doesn’t really add anything.”  In this case, it does.  But even with one eye, the cinematography, use of color, composition, etc. is just beautiful.  The movie posters and trailers don’t at all capture the spirit of the film itself.  The adaptation from the book is wonderful.  It’s not the same as the book—there are additions, deletions, and changes—but that should be expected from any adaptation.  And in this case, I think they all worked superbly.  The movie’s use of history’s earliest films makes the story seem like it is much better suited as a movie in the first place.  I really loved the story’s celebration of the human imagination, from books to magic tricks to mechanics to movies.  And the theme about how the world is like a clock.

So, if you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend it.  And in 3D.