The Florida skills exam revisited 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — A few days ago, I wrote about an Orange County, Florida, school board member who took a version of the 2010 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for 10th graders and did very poorly on it: he only got 62% on the reading portion and completely bombed the math section.

Rick Roach, who has two master’s degrees, argues that his results suggest that the test is not really testing what students need to know and that the tests pigeonhole students unfairly.

One could also argue, as a few commenters on that post have already, that Roach’s poor reading and math skills are to blame, not the FCAT. He does admit in an email to educator Marion Brady that his math skills are rusty, but I contend that Roach and his detractors are also not considering the time factor.

For example, 10th graders have 70 minutes to answer 58 or so math questions, and 70 minutes to answer about 45 reading questions, from what I can gather from the 2006 exams available online.. That works out to an average time of 1:12 for each math question and 1:33 for each reading question. If any Floridians can correct my information, please do, because those figures don’t seem realistic.

Anyway, my challenge to people who dis Roach and refuse to criticize the test is this. Try these math questions from the 2006 FCAT for 10th graders and time yourselves. I’ll be generous: you have 2 minutes for each one. No cheating. You may use your calculators.

Question 1:
Tonja and Edward are participating in a jog-a-thon to raise money for charity. Tonja will raise $20, plus $2 for each lap she jogs. Edward will raise $30, plus $1.50 for each lap he jogs. The total amount of money each will raise can be calculated using the following expressions where n represents the number of laps run:
Tonja: 20 + 2n Edward: 30 + 1.50n
After how many laps will Tonja and Edward have raised the same amount of money?
A. 3
B. 6.5
C. 14.5
D. 20

Question 2:
Which of the following is equivalent to √50?
A. 5√2
B. 10
C. 25
D. 25√2

Question 3:
Highlands Park is located between two parallel streets: Walker Street and James Avenue. The park faces Walker Street and is bordered by two brick walls that intersect James Avenue at point C, as shown below.
What is the measure of ∠ACB, the angle formed by the park’s two brick walls?
F. 96° G. 84° H. 60° I. 36°

Question 4 (last one!)
In music a certain “A note” has a frequency of 440 hertz (vibrations per second).
This is called the first harmonic. The second harmonic of that “A note” is 880 hertz, and the third harmonic is 1,320 hertz. According to this pattern, what is the frequency of the fifth harmonic?
F. 880 hertz
G. 1,760 hertz
H. 2,200 hertz
I. 2,640 hertz

If eight minutes have passed, your time is up. Put down your pencils and close your test booklets.

Here are the answers. If you got them all right, you can maybe pass 10th grade algebra. If you got none right, or you guessed, then you’re in the same boat as Roach. In that case, shut up and listen to what he says.

1. D 2. A 3. G 4. H

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3 thoughts on “The Florida skills exam revisited

  1. Reply PK Dec 16,2011 5:36 am

    For once, I think you and I have a different take on this. I have never understood the extent of the consternation surrounding standardized testing (granted, I’ve always done well at them, so that’s no doubt influencing my opinion). I went to the original WaPo link you cited and took all 7 math questions within about 4 minutes, and got them all correct (and I didn’t need a calculator or even scratch paper). There was no complex math whatsoever on most of these questions; about the only “trick” one really needed to know was some geometry related to angle measurements for triangles and lines that cross. I fall in the camp of people who think that basic numeracy is just about as important as basic literacy in our society, and these questions aren’t much beyond basic numeracy.

    Way back, I took the CBEST exam, which was required for all aspiring teachers for the California school system. It was the first year of the exam, so it may have changed since then. But at the time, the math questions in particular were laughable (MUCH easier than the 7 math problems in the WaPo article). I remember the first one, which asked which was the smallest, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10, or 1/200. Seriously. The rest of the questions didn’t get a lot tougher than that one, either. The most notable aspect, though, was the conversations I overheard in the break, as people chatted about the test they’d just taken. Half the people were outraged at how tough it was: “how could we possibly need to know such difficult math?” And the other half were outraged that the state felt it actually needed to confirm that people (college graduates) knew such obvious and basic skills as were measured on that test.

    I don’t know Mr. Roach, obviously, but how do we know he’s not a bizarre outlier on this? One reads anecdotes all the time about people in successful professions who have turned out to be functionally illiterate, for example. Roach may have slid through school and still gotten his degrees; you know how that goes sometimes. And yet he is clearly woefully deficient in actual reading comprehension skills, not to mention math (seriously: he knew the answers to NONE of the 60 math questions??!). I have a couple of friends who don’t seem to be capable of reading basic news stories and getting the main point, and they’re “educated” too. One could argue that the state of political discourse in this country also points to a lack of reading comprehension capability, basic logic, etc.

    Standards have really dropped, and kids get “passed through” a lot of high schools without learning those skills adequately. As does an illiterate, they look normal, they act normal, they even blend into society and learn coping mechanisms. Some of them maybe even get masters degrees (and from where, by the way? anywhere counts? Standards are NOT equal across institutions, needless to say). If Roach can’t score better than a 62 percent on reading, I seriously find it hard to believe that he can really “read”, unless you define reading as simply being able to look at a printed word and know what word it is. But that’s not really reading at the level that a literate, functional citizen needs to read. AND THAT’S the point of the test. I was especially amused that one of Roach’s criticisms of the test was that kids are “reading material they didn’t choose.” Never happens in life, eh?

    Call me neanderthal if you want, but I applaud the judicious (not extreme) use of standardized tests to help determine (and promote) basic skills acquisition. Yes, they have flaws, but to eliminate them entirely is to contribute to the lowering of standards that’s already underway.

  2. Reply eljefe Dec 16,2011 5:38 pm

    I’m of two minds about all these tests. On one hand, I recognize that testing is necessary as a diagnostic tool, or a qualification determiner. After all, as a teacher, I’ve given countless quizzes and exams to see what the students learned. Likewise, we need to know if students (or teachers) meet certain minimum standards. So, I’m not arguing that we need to dispense with standardized exams entirely.

    What bothers me is the obsession some educators and politicians have with the exams. They see the exams as THE ONLY measure of a student’s (or a teacher’s, or a school’s) success/intelligence/achievement. Tying exam scores to teacher pay or school funding, as many states have done, creates an unhealthy, unintended consequence. Schools become test-coaching centers, instead of institutes of learning. Teachers don’t want to lose their pay; schools don’t want to lose funding or autonomy. Here in China, the national college entrance exam is so overwhelmingly important that high school students literally do nothing their last year of school but take mock test after mock test, read and memorize a stack of books, for 10 hours a day (or more!) six days a week. Some schools don’t even let them off campus on weekends. Why? Teachers and schools don’t want to lose face if the students do poorly. They fear upset parents blaming the schools for the kids’ scores, so they basically cover their asses as best they can.

    While the situation is not so bad as that in the US, there are signs of it. In Kentucky, anyway, teachers of 3rd, 6th and 9th graders teach to the assessment tests the kids will take in those years. Normal syllabi are tossed out the window, and the year becomes, drill, baby, drill.

    There are too many variables determining a student’s score on these tests. Some of them include teacher quality, school environment and classroom discipline. But others lie far outside the teacher or the school’s purview: home environment, family income, neighborhood environment, and district tax base. Too often, the people in the trenches — the ones who deal with the students 180 days a year — are the first ones to be blamed. Sometimes, the teachers are really shitty and should be replaced, but using standardized tests to ferret them out is a bit like shooting at mosquitoes with a shotgun.

    As for Roach, he may be guilty of exaggeration, as well as terminal innumeracy. We can look at his results as either indicative of someone with a poor basic education slipping through the cracks and becoming a policy maker (remind you of any Congressmen?), or of a system of tests that don’t really measure the potential of a student. My guess is the answer lies somewhere in between the extremes. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, too many people are willing to discount Roach as a functional idiot than question the validity of the exams he took. Maybe he’s not as bright as we’d hope, but just maybe the exams are not as reliable as we think. I haven’t had time to delve into the provenance of the FCAT, but Roach’s message is that someone should.

  3. Reply eljefe Dec 16,2011 6:09 pm

    Here is Roach’s background, from the League of Women Voters profile of him. Coincidentally, he’s a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., where he studied education and ed psych. EKU is far from being a powerhouse of education (ahem, sorry, Kentuckians), but it’s not a diploma mill.

    But, to be honest, education is a bunny major at most universities. I had to take ed and ed psych courses for my MAT at University of Louisville. Only one course, a master’s level seminar class, was really challenging or inherently useful. Only two of my profs had an inkling of statistics or science education. Most of the courses were ridiculously easy to pass.

    Since I taught in a private school, I didn’t need Kentucky teacher certification, and to this day, I still am not certified to teach in a public school system. Likewise, I never sat for the National Teacher Exam (now called the Praxis). Yet, I’ve been an successful and effective teacher for more than 25 years. Draw your own conclusions.

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