Test Taking Takes Practice

A blog run by the Washington Post featured a post on Monday about an adult taking and failing a standardized test, who was later revealed as school board member Rick Roach:

Roach, the father of five children and grandfather of two, was a teacher, counselor and coach in Orange County for 14 years. He was first elected to the board in 1998 and has been reelected three times. A resident of Orange County for three decades, he has a bachelor of science degree in education and two masters degrees: in education and educational psychology. He has trained over 18,000 educators in classroom management and course delivery skills in six eastern states over the last 25 years.

How did he do? From the original blog post:

"I won't beat around the bush," he wrote in an email. "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."

Shocking, no? Well, not so much. After all, we've been down this road before at ScienceBlogs, back in the very early days, when Dave Munger and I put together the Blogger SAT Challenge, and found that people who spend a lot of time writing stuff on the Internet got below-average scores when asked to do an SAT writing question.

I think Roach's failure can be attributed in large part to the same factor that brought down a lot of the Challenge participants, namely that taking tests is a skill in itself, and requires some practice. If you haven't recently sat down in a chair and tried to answer a bunch of random questions in a limited amount of time, you are going to have a little trouble with it. Particularly if it's testing material you haven't used in a long time.

(Now, of course, there's a legitimate question to be raised over Roach's claim that he doesn't even know anybody who knows how to do those math problems. This doesn't speak well for somebody who helps run a school where they, you know, employ people who are supposed to teach how to do those math problems...)

This explanation is raised and then pooh-poohed in the articles, but I think it's a bigger factor than they let on. Test taking is a skill, and it's one of the skills most reliably tested by taking tests. Without practice, test taking ability will weaken a bit, and that will be reflected in somewhat lower scores.

Now, as someone who is not a big fan of high-stakes testing, you might think I'd be all over this story as proof that it's all a bunch of crap. I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, though, in large part because of the way Roach phrases his self-defense/ complaints with the test:

"It might be argued that I've been out of school too long, that if I'd actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn't that miss the point? A test that can determine a student's future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can't see how that could possibly be true of the test I took."

As someone who quite regularly has to teach introductory physics to students who struggle with it because they have a shaky grasp of tenth-grade math, I'm really not any happier with the notion of arranging graduation standards around what Mr. Roach thinks of as practical life requirements than I am with the idea of high-stakes standardized testing under the current regime. Frankly, the whole story just makes me faintly depressed about everybody involved, but particularly the adults with multiple education degrees who can't see the relevance of tenth-grade math.

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Let me state the obvious: math majors, not education majors, need to be teaching kids math. The same goes for science teachers etc.
Would-be teachers are nowadays allowed to take lots of education courses and a pathetically small number of courses in the field in which they will be teaching. No wonder kids don't learn squat and certainly won't fall in love with the subject when taught by a teacher who has little grasp of the material him/herself.

By Grumpy Lurker (not verified) on 06 Dec 2011 #permalink

The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them

This is the part I find scary. Granted that my memory may be a bit fuzzy after all these years, but I remember the SAT math section including questions in basic arithmetic as well as high school algebra. Like you, I could forgive him if he weren't able to answer all 60 questions in the allotted time. But I would expect him to be able to do these problems (or at least most of them) given infinite time.

He isn't entirely wrong to question the relevance of the SAT, but he is doing so for the wrong reasons.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Dec 2011 #permalink

But things unused do get repressed. I had the equivalent of a math major by the time I finished grad school in geophysics, but have not used any of the manipulations of the calculus since I graduated in 1977. So much of it has disappeared into the void. I might still remember some trig identities, but dealing with integration etc would take a review session. One needs the math to understand the physics, but then much of the physics is unused in real life. My grandfather who got an EE degree in 1916 made essentially the same comment re the calculus. He designed transformers for a living, so much of the math had been reduced to a set of formulas.

Test taking is a whole bag of skills, with the ability to take standardized tests a skill set in and of itself. I remember when I went to study for the GRE with a two-decade-old bachelor's degree. The first few times I tried the practice tests, I failed miserably. Then I began to get the hang of what they were looking for in each section,did a little bit of math review, and things started looking much better except for the logic section. Logic problems eluded me, though the work I was doing at the time involved much logical thinking. Finally I had an "ah ha" moment, figured out how to approach the problems in the same way I approached my work, and how to sort through them.

Then I needed plenty of practice on how to grind through all these types of problems quickly, and how to shift gears quickly to go from one section of problems to the next. But all the work paid off; I aced the GRE.

Now, did I need anything remotely like that skill set in any test I actually took as a graduate student? Hell no. In graduate school I had to learn to write clear, concise answers that might be a few words, a paragraph, or a page, depending on the scope of the question. Finally I had to write and illustrate a hundred or so pages of an MS thesis. My thesis was actually approved by the university just yesterday, so I'm on the cusp of graduating with an MS.

If I had to take the GRE tomorrow, I'd probably fail it.

Isn't there a saying that when we are young, we take tests to get into institutions, but when we grow old, we take tests to stay out of institutions? At my age, it pays to keep my brain in shape. (To be honest, I've been doing some SAT and high school math tutoring. It's surprising how quickly it all comes back.)

Also, it is possible to have a career designing transformers and never having to do anything but use a formula or two, but I remember all the old clunky transformers they used to make and how much smaller, lighter, quieter and more efficient the new ones are. I'm pretty sure that someone had to do some real thinking to come up with these new models not just plugging in a new set of numbers.

Re: Comment 1. Rather, I think math needs to be taught by math majors as well as education majors. It's not completely clear to me how it's done in the US, but teachers in Canada have two separate university degrees before they teach (they can also be combined into one continuous program but the requirements are not lessened). I have a degree in physics (with a math minor) where I learned the majority of the content I now teach. That means I passed (to name a few) quantum mechanics, several lab courses, scientific computing, electricity and magnetism, differential equations, two years of calculus, etc.

My second degree (which is 60 credit hours or two more years of school) is in education, where I learned general classroom strategies, legal requirements of the job, some developmental psychology, plus I took classes specific to my major/teachable subjects: in my case these included one focused on science pedagogy, another on physics pedagogy, one on math pedagogy, an elective on science history and philosophy and another on field-based learning in the sciences (my all-time favourite class), etc.

Through my two years in education, I planned field trips, major science projects, built things (some of them rather Rube Goldbergian), and of course I had a teaching practicum each semester where I actually taught my specialty subjects (they didn't throw me in to an English Lit class, for example). An English major had some similar experiences but mostly took a very different kind of education degree than I did, ditto for comp sci, psych, biology, or phys ed majors.

Educational training isn't something to be taken in lieu of a science, history, or math degree, but in addition to it. But it is worthwhile. If I had to choose, I would probably pick content knowledge over teaching technique, but why choose? Every teacher should have both. Since US education programs are designated masters degrees, they cannot possibly be taken in isolation, i.e., independent of a first, non-education degree. So my question is, why are teachers coming out of the program without the necessary qualifications?

Or, is alleged US teacher incompetence a myth that arose from people making guesses as to why US math/science performance sucks compared to other countries? Have studies been done on a lack of subject knowledge of content area teachers in the US? I don't know the answer, but I'm interested if someone has solid info one way or another (not anecdotes or made up assumptions). I think my colleagues south of the border at least deserve a fair trial.

Eric - He's not talking about the SATs, he's talking about the FCATs.

You can dig up the 2006 versions of the tests here:

I only looked through the first 20 math questions, but I have to say I'm amazed that an educated adult wouldn't know how to do a single one of them. (He did take it in a different year, but I doubt the questions were drastically different in difficulty.) No, not all of the questions were good, but

lost the tail of my post.

...they included some pretty simple ones.

I pulled up the FCAT, and the math section is ridiculously easy - especially if you look at the cheat sheet provided. And you get to use a calculator, so a lot of questions you could just plug in the available answers to check for true/false. That guy needs to give back his degrees, and the institutions that awarded the degrees should give him back his money as they obviously failed him.

Rediculously rediculous!
No wonder he took most of his courses in education. One might go that way if he realy wanted to teach.. Or if just not capable of anything else.

By informania (not verified) on 07 Dec 2011 #permalink

I Googled "FCAT passing score" and discovered that he actually passed the reading test and only needed to get a few more correct to pass the math part. Not only is the math test not about HS algebra, you don't even have to get half of them right to pass.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 09 Dec 2011 #permalink

I didn't notice if anyone else pointed this out, but he got 10 out of 60 correct on the math part, and a bunch of those questions were MULTIPLE CHOICE! He did WORSE than random guessing, he actually thought about it, and consistently picked the wrong answer.

I recently read about a program in NY where they were trying to get more pre-service teacher types to get certification to teach Earth Science. So they looked to see how many people there actually had the certification, and there were TWO in the Bronx. Not 200, but 2. And then there's this guy, with three degrees, none in anything other than education, and he can't pass a test that he's trained 18,000 other teachers to teach kids to be ready for.
How many other teachers have those 18,000 trained? I think we might've found the "Patient Zero" of the education crisis.