Nimbi: Mysterious, ephemeral and on the test

New York’s Core-aligned tests are too hard, teachers are complaining.

One version of the sixth-grade test asked students to answer questions based on a Smithsonian article, Nimbus Clouds: Mysterious, Ephemeral and Now Indoors, on a Dutch artist who creates and photographs indoor clouds.

Berndnaut Smilde’s favorite picture uses the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium. “The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible” the artist writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.”

Nimbus D’Aspremont. © Berndnaut Smilde.

Others complained of a sixth-grade passage from That Spot by Jack London, which included “beaten curs,” “absconders of justice,” surmise, “savve our cabin,” and “let’s maroon him,” writes Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post column.

One version of the eighth-grade test required 13-year-olds to read a New York Times‘ story, Can a playground be too safe?  with vocabulary such as “bowdlerized, habituation techniques, counterintuitive, orthodoxy, circuitous, risk averse culture, and litigious,” writes Strauss.

The story quotes a journal article by Norwegian scientists on why kids love risky play:

Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.

Without seeing the questions, it’s hard to tell whether the test is unreasonably difficult. Is it possible to infer meaning from context? Or to ignore the “hard words” and still get the meaning?

PARCC test is ‘stupid, impossible’ and ‘weird’

As a big supporter of Common Core standards, literacy consultant Rebecca Steinitz asked her seventh-grade daughter to take a practice test released by the PARCC consortium. It’s a “stupid, impossible test” filled with “weird questions” that “make no sense,” reported Eva.

Eva aced Massachusetts’ old exams, her mother writes on the Huffington Post. (It’s an open letter to President Obama, whose private-schooled daughters won’t take core-aligned exams, but that’s just a gimmick.) Next year, Eva will take a PARCC-designed exam in school.

Here’s one of the “crazy” questions on the practice test:

You have learned about electricity by reading two articles, “Energy Story” and “Conducting Solutions,” and viewing a video clip titled “Hands-On Science with Squishy Circuits.” In an essay, compare the purpose of the three sources. Then analyze how each source uses explanations, demonstrations, or descriptions of experiments to help accomplish its purpose. Be sure to discuss important differences and similarities between the information gained from the video and the information provided in the articles. Support your response with evidence from each source.

Seventh graders “know how to compare and contrast, and they know how to provide evidence,” writes Steinitz. But “unpacking this prompt, let alone accomplishing it,” would feel “impossible” to most as it did for Eva.

Eva missed 10 of 45 multiple-choice questions scoring in the C range. That means most of her classmates would fail.

Steinitz, who earned a PhD in English, has trained and coached high school English teachers. She missed seven of 36 questions on the 11th-grade practice test.

She thinks ninth graders aren’t ready to read a passage from Bleak House and third graders would be stumped by the abstraction in this essay prompt:

Old Mother West Wind and the Sandwitch both try to teach important lessons to characters in the stories. Write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind’s and the Sandwitch’s words and actions are important to the plots of the stories. Use what you learned about the characters to support your essay.

Steinitz believes Common Core standards could help bring a rigorous, challenging, engaging curriculum to every classroom. “But the standards won’t succeed if the tests used to assess them are confusing, developmentally inappropriate, and so hard that even good students can’t do well on them.”

Teaching question: Can teachers prepare students to tackle questions like these?

Political question: If the parents of good students see them earning C’s on new tests, will support for Common Core collapse?

60% of adults fail Rhode Island test

Saying Rhode Island’s graduation exam is unfair, the Providence Students Union persuaded 50 professionals to take a condensed version of the math portion on “take the test” day.  Sixty percent scored “substantially below proficient,” which would put them at risk of not graduating from high school if they weren’t already college graduates. Eight percent scored “proficient with distinction, 14 percent were “proficient” and 18 percent were “partially proficient.”

Don’t count on the ‘cone of learning’


The “cone of learning, aka the “learning pyramid” or the “cone of experience” is popular — and unreliable — writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in Cone of learning or cone of shame?

Many variables affect memory retrieval:

what material is recalled (gazing out the window of a car is an audiovisual experience just like watching an action movie, but your memory for these two audiovisual experiences will not be equivalent)

the age of the subjects

the delay between study and test (obviously, the percent recalled usually drops with delay)

what were subjects instructed to do as they read, demonstrated, taught, etc. (you can boost memory considerably for a reading task by asking subjects to summarize as they read)

how was memory tested (percent recalled is almost always much higher for recognition tests than recall).

what subjects know about the to-be-remembered material (if you already know something about the subject, memory will be much better.

Taking practice tests and spreading out study sessions is effective, researchers conclude. In Why Don’t Students Like School?Willingham advises: “Try to think about material at study in the same way that you anticipate that you will need to think about it later.”

Kentucky scores drop on core-aligned tests

Kentucky was the first state to adopt Common Core Standards and the first to align its state test to the new standards. Not surprisingly, scores are way down on the new core-aligned tests, reports Ed Week.

The share of students scoring “proficient” or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in both elementary and middle school the first year the tests were given.

“What you’re seeing in Kentucky is a predictor of what you’re going to see in the other states, as the assessments roll out next year and the year after,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Scores typically drop when any new test is introduced. Kentucky’s K-PREP is more rigorous than its predecessor.

Most Common Core Standards states are expected to use tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Japanese train robot to ace university exam

Japanese researchers are working on a robot that could ace university entrance exams, reports AFP. By 2021, the robot would be ready to tackle Tokyo University’s “notoriously tough exam,” hopes Hidenao Iwane from Fujitsu Laboratories.

Why bother?

The ultimate goal is to develop technology that would “enable anyone to easily use sophisticated mathematical analysis tools,” Fujitsu said.

If the robot passes the test — just leave it to HAL — does that mean the humans don’t have to?

Kids, fail this test

New York’s eighth-grade writing exam is A Test You Need to Fail, writes teacher Ruth Ann Dandrea at Rethinking Schools. The exam, which is meant to predict who’ll pass the Regents exam in 11th grade, gives full credit only to students who cite two facts from the reading material in each answer, she complains.

In your constructed response—no matter how well written, correct, intelligent, noble, beautiful, and meaningful it is—if you’ve not collected any specific facts from the provided readings (even if you happen to know more information about the chosen topic than the readings provide), then you will get a zero.

Don’t go for a good score, Dandrea advises students.

I applaud you, sample writer: When asked the either/or question, you began your response, “Honestly, I think it is both.” You were right, and you were brave, and the test you were taking was neither. And I applaud you, wildest 8th grader of my own, who—when asked how a quote applied to the two characters from the two passages provided—wrote, “I don’t think it applies to either one of them.” Wear your zeroes proudly, kids. This is a test you need to fail.

It’s possible to argue for “both” or “neither,”  citing facts from the reading and beyond to support that opinion.  If her students are good writers, as she believes, it should be easy.  Yet Dandrea thinks the exam is not just too narrow. She calls it “criminal.”

As an aside, Dandrea also mentions she gives students 10 minutes in every class period to read books of their own choosing. Is this a good use of class time?

Failure guaranteed

Failure is almost guaranteed for four- and five-year-olds who take California’s test to identify “English Learners,” I write on Pajamas Media. Only 12 percent of entering kindergartners who take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) are deemed fluent in English, even though 85 percent were born in the U.S., concludes a new study by Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research. Outside of Los Angeles, the CELDT pass rate is 6 percent.

One in three California elementary students is classified as an English Learner. That’s because schools are misidentifying large numbers of children, conclude Berkeley Education Professor Lisa García Bedolla and researcher Rosaisela Rodriguez.  As a result, teaching and tutoring resources are spread thin: Some kids are taught skills they already know, while others don’t get enough help.

It all starts with the home language survey, which asks about the child’s first language, the language he or she speaks most often at home, the languages the adults speak at home, and what language the parents speak most often with their child.

If Mom mentions a language other than English — or in addition to English — the child will be given the nearly unpassable CELDT, the researchers find.

Maybe Grandma lives with the family and speaks Spanish?  A five-year-old will be given a two-hour test which requires him to talk to a stranger with no parent in the room.

Children that young can’t handle a two-hour test, the researchers say. Observers report children crying and hiding under chairs or tables. CELDT, which keeps getting longer, has added reading and writing questions for children who haven’t started kindergarten.

Schools get more money for English Learners, which provides an incentive to identify as many children as possible and keep them in the program, even when they test as proficient on CELDT.  Few children are in bilingual classes these days, but some schools hire aides who provide help in children’s native language — or what’s supposed to be their native language. Many are pulled out of class for instruction in basic English.

AP test-takers have ‘swag’

Grading AP Comparative Government tests is educational, writes Coach Brown, who graded with “awesome” colleagues. Every AP teacher should know how readers analyze answers, he suggests.

Some AP test takers don’t even try: They wrote that they weren’t prepared and already had been admitted to college.  Quite a few wrote that they’d been required to take the test.

Experienced graders say that every year the students who aren’t trying seem to gravitate to a theme. This year, it was “swag,” referring to confidence and demeanor.

Some people wrote about how President Putin had major swag while Prime Minister Cameron had little swag. Others wrote how their life was full of swag, from chillin with homies to getting the ladies and playing hoop. Still others would actually write rap lyrics dedicated to swag.

But the ultimate was when one reader suddenly stated “Look! It’s a complete treatise on swag!” Sure enough, a student had taken the time to write what could be considered the definitive Wikipedia post on swag. It really had us rolling with laughter.

I ran across a different definition of swag when I volunteered as a copy editor for Mosaic, a high school student journalism workshop at San Jose State. A story on fixed-gear bicycling – a hip trend I’d never heard of — reported that cool “fixies” score free promotional products or “swag.”  Copy editing can be educational too. The Urban Dictionary accepts both definitions.


States cut writing exams to save money

Illinois won’t test high school juniors’ writing skills, reports the Chicago Tribune. The change will save about $2.4 million. The writing assessments for elementary and middle school students were dropped last year.

Oregon lawmakers last month suspended the writing test for fourth- and seventh-graders, but retained the high school assessment. “Proficient” writing will be a high school graduation requirement by 2013.

In a cost-cutting effort last fall, Missouri education officials eliminated for at least two years the detailed, written response questions that had been hand-graded in science and math. Writing prompts in language arts also were suspended. Students still write some short answers as part of state testing.

It will be a shame if schools spend less time on writing because it’s not going to be on the test, leaving students unprepared to communicate clearly in college or on the job.