Analysis of “High-Stakes” Tests in New York

Right now, there is a big controversy over “high stakes” tests for elementary schools in New York. Some parents are boycotting it. Today, I took some of the reading comprehension tests that my daughter brought home from school to prepare for the real thing. Here is my analysis:

There are obvious patterns to all the questions. Each question asks for a specific answer, and then always also asks to “support” the answer by providing the details. I took a look at the sample answers, and what they are essentially asking the students to do is to find the answer in the passages they provide and to paraphrase them. So, for every question, you could underline a sentence in the passage which would be the answer, and then you could figure out how to paraphrase it.

I’m not sure what the educational theory behind this pattern is. In most cases, you can skip reading the passage, read the question, locate the answer, and then paraphrase. In fact, that would be the quickest way to take the test.

I felt that some of the tests were actually interesting. The passages they provided were educational in themselves, and taught me things I didn’t know (made me curious to learn more about them). But the one I took today was quite boring. My mind kept drifting away, and I had a hard time concentrating, because it was so boring. It appears that different tests are designed by different people. The quality seems to be inconsistent. 

When they provide boring materials, what exactly are they trying to test? My ability to tolerate boredom? I have an exceptional ability to ignore everything that is going on around me when I’m engaged in something that I’m interested in. In fact, my inability to focus on boring things helped me navigate my career towards what I enjoy. It’s a good inability to have (unless you really want to spend your life locked up in a cubicle doing things you hate). I’m wondering if the test designers deliberately chose boring materials to test some specific ability, or if they were the best they could come up with.

Some of the questions were maddeningly vague and imprecise. For instance, one question asks: “Before his cousin gave him paints and brushes, what did Benny use to make his pictures? Use two details from the passage to support your answer.”

“What” implies that it wants a specific answer; X or Y. In this particular case, they are: “Mother’s indigo” for blue (the passage provides no answer for WHAT he used to make red and yellow), and “cat hair” for brush. Now, I’m asked to “support” these answers. I’m not the one who is telling the story. The story is simply telling me what he used. I’m not in a position to support or back up the author’s claim. The answers are “Mother’s indigo” and “cat hair”, period. These are not MY claim, therefore it makes no sense for me to “support” it.

All the questions consistently asks for more “details”, and I’m wondering why they encourage more details. In my own life, I’m often criticized for providing too much detail. People hate me for it. If so, why encourage that to kids? If there is a shorter and more precise way to answer a question, shouldn’t we be encouraging that instead?

Then another question asks: “How was making pictures more important to Benny than working or going to school?” I could understand this question if it were a “Why”. I would then figure out what caused them to be important for Benny. But “How”? How is anything the way they are? How is this apple red? How is Jonny short? How is Mary angry? How do you answer these questions? I could also understand it if it were: “How did making pictures BECOME more important to Benny?” I could then describe the process or progression. It is completely unclear to me what exactly the test designer wants to know with this question.

So far, I have three tests for which I would rate the test designers as A, C, and F.