Are they smart or not smart?

A school board member wrote an email to his friend about taking the Florida tenth grade standardized test:

I won’t beat around the bush. 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.

The friend is Marion Brady, who wrote the blog (updated by Valerie Strauss).

Several blog commenters said they correctly answered the sample questions. That got me wondering: “Are they smart or not smart?” They seem smart because they correctly answered the questions. But they seem not smart because they don’t seem to understand the point of the blog.

It is NOT that a person should be able to correctly answer the questions.  It’s that scores sometimes correlate poorly to success or failure. That point raises questions:

  1. How often is the correlation weak or non-existent?
  2. What are the limitations of these tests’ predictive abilities?
  3. What are the limitations of these tests’ diagnostic abilities?

Smart people would raise these questions, but the commenters didn’t.

Finally, they seem not smart for two additional reasons. First, they seem not to understand the purpose of standardized tests. Several argued with the sample questions’ level of difficulty (too easy). Evidently, they don’t understand that standardized tests must be exactly what is described in the reports here of the test takers — easy for some and difficult for others. The purpose of the FCAT is not to determine how much students know in relation to “what everybody should know.” The purpose is to put students into five “levels” on a bell shaped curve. Second, they seem not smart because they seem to believe everybody should know what they know. That is convenient and comforting, but not smart. I love irony.



#1 Mark Steger on 09.01.13 at 3:45 pm

Leaving aside the question of what math skills a school board member needs to do a good job running a school district (I’d argue that the ability to read graphs is definitely a needed skill and if this school board member didn’t get any questions right, then his mastery of this skill is suspect), is there any doubt that students who want to go on to successful careers in math, science or engineering absolutely must be able to demonstrate the skills tested by the math portion of this test? If the school board member’s argument is that we ought to supplement the tests with questions that demonstrate the skills needed to succeed in other careers(like school board trustee), fine. But if his argument is that we don’t need to give math tests because it’s possible to be successful without math skills, I have a problem with that. So, what *is* his point?

(Maybe I can’t figure out his point because I have a reading comprehension problem. It’s no coincidence that I immediately took the sample math test and didn’t even open the reading test. 😉

#2 casey on 09.02.13 at 5:48 pm

Yes — there is no doubt that students going into those careers need those skills. We give tests like this to help young people know their abilities and inabilities. After their score is placed on a bell-shaped curve, they have a good idea of where they stand in relation to other students’ skills.

I don’t know what the school board member’s argument is. All I know is he was unable to answer the questions. When I used to assist with proctoring the NC end-of-7th grade test, I felt that many policy makers would score poorly on that test, too; but I believed none would ever take it.

The point of Marion Brady’s blog seems to be that we finally have a policy maker who took the exam, and this is what we see — a successful person who is unable to answer the questions. From this it follows that we should be careful about conclusions we draw about students who score low on these tests, and we should ask the three questions posed in my blog.

My graduate students tell me standardized test scores drive everything in their schools. Evidently, high test scores are policy makers’ definition of the educated person. I believe we need smart people to offer a richer definition of what it means to be educated. And I believe the people who score well on standardized tests should lead the way.

BTW — I wanted to improve the tone of the blog, so now the headline is “Are they Smart or not Smart?”

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