Failing the test

After earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees in education, a school board member took Florida’s 10th-grade exam, earning a D in reading and an F in math. The test doesn’t measure essential skills, he told his friend, Marion Brady, who wrote about it in Answer Sheet. The school board member wrote in an e-mail:

“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.

His friends told him the math on the exam isn’t necessary in their professions. “A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life,” he writes.

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

“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.

He wonders who wrote the questions using what criteria and who set the cut score. Actually, he should be able to research this question by calling the state education department or going online.

Brady agrees with his friend that the exam writers are unaccountable idiots.

Those decisions are shaped not by knowledge or understanding of educating, but by ideology, politics, hubris, greed, ignorance, the conventional wisdom, and various combinations thereof. And then they’re sold to the public by the rich and powerful.

After Brady’s column ran, Rick Roach, a retired teacher, counselor and coach and a school board member in Orange County, Florida, courageously identified himself. While I admire his candor, I have to wonder about his reading and math skills.

Questions from past exams are available here.

Here’s a “low” question from the 2006 10th-grade math exam, which was answered correctly by 89 percent of students:

In 1995, there was a total of 7.2 million acres of pine forests in Florida. All of the forests were either natural or planted by people. Given that 4.4 million acres of these pine forests were planted by people, how many millions of acres of these pine forests were natural?

A “moderate” question, answered correctly by 72 percent of students,  provides the equation:

An artist sells earrings from a booth at a fair. Rent for the booth is $250. The artist makes $6 from each pair of earrings sold. The profit in dollars, P, can be found using the following equation, where n is the number of pairs of earrings sold.

P = 6n – 250

How many pairs of earrings must the artist sell to earn a profit of $500?

Roach says he couldn’t answer a single math question.

This reading question from 2005 is considered “moderate” in difficulty:

High peaks are especially prone to glacial erosion, because they tend to catch clouds that might otherwise drop snow onto lower mountains nearby.

What does prone to mean?
11% A. altered by
61% B. inclined to
11% C. resistant to
17% D. weakened by

Sixty-one percent of students got it right.

Brady says Roach is a success in life:

His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities.

If Roach could achieve all that — frequent flyer miles too — then D reading skills and F math skills must be OK for Florida 10th graders. But they’ll all have to go into professions that don’t require reading and math — like education.

About Joanne


  1. C’mon, Joanne. If you’re going for a low blow, at least hit the right target. He may be on a school board but his career is not in education.

  2. If he really couldn’t answer ANY math questions, and those were relatively accurate examples, without radical change in the past six years, then he’s… well, I certainly wouldn’t admit in public to not being able to do junior high math.

    If anything, that tells me that their requirements are shamefully low for high school graduation.

    “What’s 7.2 minus 4.4” is not exactly a poser.

  3. Nor is calculating the volume of a cone when you’re given a cheat sheet with all the formulae for the volumes of regular solids and a calculator. I wouldn’t trust this guy to run a bath, much less a school board.

    Kinda risky to go public with the fact that you can’t deal with 10th grade math… who should ever let you near a budget again?

  4. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    The real pity here isn’t that the school board member is ignorant, but rather that those are the 10th grade exit exam questions, not the junior high exit questions.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’ve never had trouble with arithmetic, probably because I was required to memorize various items, such as the times tables. Remember those?
    Being unable to structure the arithmetic from a “story problem” is a different matter altogether.
    Caveat. It’s tough to design a story problem that doesn’t either confuse or inadvertently imply at least one wrong answer.
    I’d be more interested in the guy’s thinking processes if he can’t figure out how to calc the forest question.
    Has he had a stroke since college?

    • Sharon Rauenzahn says:

      That was very nearly my first question, “Does he have Alzheimers?” My mother is in the early stages, and (because she doesn’t remember that she doesn’t remember) doesn’t know that she has a problem. She was the budget director of a very large international charity, not so many years ago, and might now struggle with some of those same test questions and find them confusing. If the guy really couldn’t answer any of the math questions, and has a B.S. and a successful career, either he benefited from a lot of social promotion on his way to college, or something has changed in his brain since then that he’s not aware of. OR… has the test suddenly gotten harder lately? Does that ever happen?

  6. Who does his taxes?
    Their definition of success: “His now-grown kids are well-educated (i.e., expensively schooled). He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.”
    Wanna bet he gets the local NEA subsidiary’s endorsement?

    The explanation for that success: “Roach was a teacher, counselor and coach in Orange County for 14 years. For the last 25 years he has trained over 18,000 educators in classroom management and course delivery skills in six eastern states.”

    He’s another insider parasite. This is another union-sponsored attack on standardized performance measures. I’ll grant the point, that the test measures skills many students will not use after they leave school. The same applies to school itself. Schools spend 12 years marching students through a curriculum most of them will never use after they leave school.

    • “This is another union-sponsored attack on standardized performance measures.”

      Yeah although you have to wade through more then a few paragraphs of scene-setting irrelevancies to get to the proof – FTA:

      “But maybe there’s hope. As I write, a New York Times story by Michael Winerip makes my day. The stupidity of the current test-based thrust of reform has triggered the first revolt of school principals. ”

      The rest of the article’s a similarly content-free diatribe on the stupidity of anyone who doesn’t see that doing testing that might be used to ascertain the professional skills of the professionals is wrong and this is choice, unethical.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Oh! He was a GYM TEACHER! Well, that explains a lot…… when I was in school, the gym teachers were always considered…. less than academically apt.

        Though the fact that a gym teacher has a paid for condo in the Caribbean, something that many doctors and lawyers can’t even achieve, certainly makes me wonder about the ‘all teachers are underpaid’ thing….

  7. What’s worse than his inability to deal with the test is his interpretation that the tests are hard and that the material is irrelevant.

    I too have a masters degree in education, but I was never under the illusion that it was anything other than expensive kindergarten. This guy, as well as his champion Marion Brady, seem to think Roach is well educated.

    This article, again, illustrates the worthlessness of education degrees.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I suspect he’s just lying. I think he could do most of the questions just fine.

      • I think you’re right. He’s just out there helping to shape the narrative for his side and on his side abject ignorance isn’t really a problem.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I know I’d feel more confident if colleges did away with those pesky tests med, law, science and engineering students are forced to take. And goodness knows there’s no connection between being able to pass a high school level test and the ability to take and pass those college level courses/tests. Who wants proof of basic competency anyway? Since there’s no actual real skill set necessary to be successful in education, other than a masters in educational B.S., those tests are completely unnecessary.

  8. Roach undermines his points on two counts: first, as has already been noted, he shows his own ignorance (whether real or feigned) by stating that he cannot answer the questions on the test. Second, he implies that students should learn only what they can put directly to use. He ignores the many indirect uses of learning.

    I don’t “use” physics or calculus in daily life, but I frequently pull out a physics or calculus textbook in order to puzzle over a problem. But even if I didn’t enjoy doing that, it would make a difference to me, even in subtle ways, to know that the slope of a position/time graph at a given point is the instantaneous velocity (for instance). Basic knowledge of that sort affects your general understanding, even if you don’t “use” it in any literal way.

    And sometimes you find, by surprise, that something studied long ago becomes important again, either because you need it or because it gains new interest for you. I returned to Latin while writing my book, and then had an opportunity to help out with a Latin class at the school where I work. I am glad to be able to pull it up from my memory.

    Standardized tests do have problems, but they are not the ones that Roach cites. I have not seen a state test that was difficult (some trick questions, sure, some poorly worded questions, sure, but few tough problems). And the tests’ lack of direct relevance to daily life is not a weakness. Real-life skills can easily be gained in real life. Schools are supposed to offer more.

  9. If the guy couldn’t pass any of these math questions, and got a “D” in writing, i’d seriously question if he actually earned his degrees… I do math everyday (albeit add, subtract, multiply, and divide when programming).

    The fact that this dude couldn’t pass an exam which is at best middle school material is an indictment of our public and higher education systems…

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    We’re wondering if a guy like this could really be this dumb. Maybe the most parsimonious explanation could be that he isn’t, but had some reason to try to discredit either testing or curriculum.
    You’d figure that pretty much any HS grad could do a lot better, and many jr hi kids. So where would you get somebody who is really this dumb? Have to fake it.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Richard– Again, according to the info on him, he was a GYM TEACHER. Perhaps when you were growing up, your gym teachers were academically skilled, but in my experience, they were usually at the bottom of their ed school classes and, when forced to teach anything even mildly academic (like health) were in way over their heads….

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yes, this. My guess is that the guy has strong inter-personal skills. People probably like him well enough.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Dierdre. When I was in school, male gym teachers were pretty much all WW II vets who’d gone to school on the GI Bill. Don’t know much about their relative place in the ed school graduating class, but my guess is that, wherever it was, they knew more about various subjects than, say, a middling HS grad, or a jr hi kid.
    IOW, ed school ranking doesn’t apply here.
    As I read the article, he did WORSE than practically any kid. Not that he did worse than some of his college classmates.
    My question is whether this is actually real. Possibly real.
    Would it be a good analogy to say that finding a doctor, last in his class, who knew less than a a kid who scored in the middle of his HS firs aid class would be hard to believe? Remember, for all you Asperger’s folks out there, an analogy is not an identiy and pointing out that it I didn’t posit an identity wastes your time, not mine.

  12. As someone who teaches language arts in Florida, I have to tell you that he is simply making a point. The reading questions are generally looking for the students to make assumptions based on the text, but they’d better have come to the same assumption as the test-writer. So many times in recent years looking at the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) the students have to take in 10th grade to graduate, I see many questions that require the student to “choose the BEST answer” – a strategy used in SAT exams, AP exams, as well as professional exams – but there are 2-3 answers that are still CORRECT. In fact, they are arguable if you know what you’re talking about. Sometimes, the answer they want is OUTRIGHT WRONG.

    So posting questions from the exams is all well and good – but please post the answers, too. Then argue.

    (This applies only to the language arts exam – I haven’t seen the math.)