Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Your tax dollars at work

So now, Dear Readers, it's time for a fine old tradition: my yearly rant about how lousy the New York State Regents Exams are.

The total cost for developing, printing, and distributing Regents exams is $15 million annually, a cost of about $250,000 per exam.  You'd think that for that kind of money, we'd be getting something pretty spiffy, right?

This year's exam in Biology (oh, excuse me, "Living Environment."  Ten years ago, as part of their drive to improve curricula and "raise the bar," they changed the name of the course) was once again the combination of goofy, poorly worded questions, strange diagrams, and ambiguity that we've all come to expect.  Here are just a few highlights from this year's exam:

30.  Depletion of non-renewable resources is often a result of
  • (1) environmental laws
  • (2) human population growth
  • (3) reforestation
  • (4) recycling
Wow!  That is what I call one high-powered question, there.  If you can puzzle through "environmental laws = good, human population growth = bad, reforestation = good, recycling = good" you got that one right.  It's like the game on Sesame Street -- "Which of these things is not like the other?"

Equally awe-inspiring were #37-39, which were to be based on an outline diagram of a human body, with only three organs -- (A) the brain, (B) the kidney, and (C) the uterus.

37.  Failure of structure A to function would most directly disrupt
  • (1) autotrophic nutrition
  • (2) chromosome replication
  • (3) cellular communication
  • (4) biological evolution
38.  Structure B represents
  • (1) cells only
  • (2) cells and tissues, only
  • (3) an organ with cells and tissues
  • (4) a complete system with organs, tissues, and cells
39.  Structure C is part of which body system?
  • (1) digestive
  • (2) reproductive
  • (3) circulatory
  • (4) nervous
Note that you don't have to understand a single thing about how the brain, kidney, or uterus functions to get these questions right.

Then, we have a reading passage, as follows:
Plants of the snow lotus species, Saussurea laniceps, are used in Tibet and China to produce traditional medicines.  These plants bloom just once, at the end of a seven-year life span.  Collectors remove the taller-blooming plants, which they consider to have the best medicinal value.  Some scientists are concerned that the continual selection and removal of the tall plants from natural ecosystems may result in a change in the average height of the snow lotus in future populations.
Ready for the question?

50.  The removal of the plants is an example of
  • (1) genetic engineering
  • (2) direct harvesting
  • (3) selective breeding
  • (4) asexual reproduction
Yup, after all that, that was the best question they could come up with.  Even more interesting, my specialty is evolutionary biology, and I wasn't even sure what the correct answer was supposed to be.  Neither was my colleague, Sue, the other biology teacher.  Were they implying that this was selective breeding?  Didn't seem right; selective breeding implies a deliberate selection of the traits by humans, in order to alter the population's characteristics.  This was deliberate, but the farmers weren't trying to create a population of shorter plants, so that seemed kind of weird.  Answers #1 and #4 were definitely wrong.  Answer #2?

Yup.  That's the answer.  "Direct harvesting."  In order to get this one correct, students had to know the following important biological fact: collecting pieces of a plant is called "harvesting."

And so on.

I had not just one, but two, students tell me after the exam, "You didn't have to know anything about biology to pass that exam."  One student, in particular, was indignant.

"I really studied for that exam," she said.  "I knew a lot of stuff -- all the parts of the brain, how the kidney works, how to solve genetics problems.  I could have saved a lot of time and effort -- I wasn't any better prepared to take that exam after four weeks of review and studying than I was before, because you hardly had to have any specific factual knowledge about anything to pass it."

When you have students complaining that an exam is too easy, you know there is something wrong.

Of course, when people decry the lousy quality of the exam, New York state educational leaders are quick to disagree.

"People may complain about the Regents, but it does provide a teacher with a basic road map of what should be covered in a course," said Jack J. Boak Jr., superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

I'm sorry, Mr. Boak, but you're wrong.  What the Regents exam does, at least in Biology, is set the bar so low that students can walk over it.  I could write a better, and fairer, exam in two hours flat, and I wouldn't even charge $250,000 to do it.

In recent years, I have typically spent the last weeks of school telling kids, "Just focus on the broad-brush terms.  Details don't matter on this exam.  Hardly anyone fails it."  This is true.  What I don't mention, however, is that also, hardly anyone scores above a 95.  Students whose knowledge of biology is exemplary get caught by weirdly-worded, ambiguous questions like #50.  They start to question themselves, just as Sue and I did -- "Can the answer they're looking for really just be 'harvesting?'"  The sprinkling of bizarre questions means that we very rarely have anyone ace this exam, even the kids who could probably teach the course themselves.  The test is designed so that most of the scores get crammed together in the middle, between 75 and 85 -- because a bell curve makes the b-b stackers in the Education Department happy.

So, that's how our year ends -- not with challenging, fair exams, but with a series of pointless hurdles for students to amble over, and thousands of exam papers for teachers to wade through.

Seems like there are better uses that $15 million a year could be put to, doesn't it?

No comments:

Post a Comment