The Obvious Blunder: Unclear Test Questions

I decided to take a look at real test questions from real standardized tests.

Although I sometimes hesitate to blow my own horn, in this case, why not? I have a masters in Literature and Writing. I’ve been a freelance editor and writer for almost thirty years (yes, I’m that old).  I have several published books to my name, and every year, I have publications in essay and poetry. Furthermore, I read. A great deal. My Kindle bill is astonishing.I tell you all this for one reason only, to establish that I am an intelligent and educated person well qualified to take a ninth-grade standardized Language Arts test.

So I went to a website with practice tests for kids to prep for LA high-stakes end-of-year testing. You can go there too and try your hand at these tests. In one sample, an excerpt from a true story and a poem were presented one after the other. Then came these questions:

What literary convention does Morey use that Noboa Polanco does not?
A detailed descriptions
B inner thoughts
C informal language
D dialogue
 24 What element of “Trapped” makes it suitable
for adaptation as a drama?
A suspense
B anger
C misfortune
D sorrow
Both of these passages convey a sense of
A fear.
B pride.
C joy.
D relief.

Seriously, I could make an argument for a number of these answers. And seriously, most junior-high kids will lose the meaning of the content of the story by the time they’ve read the poem.

Each “wrong” answer counts against the student, the teacher, and the school. For those states still locked into No Child Left Behind (40 of them, the majority of them), a school’s status and even its ability to continue depends on kids getting more and more right answers, till everyone gets them all right.

Yeah, right.

In my school, we have a great many special education students who can’t comprehend the sample test passages. And I must confess, many of our regular students can’t hold onto the meanings , either. And further, as a Language Arts teacher (and art teacher, part of the time), I would ask: who gives a darn about these comparisons? What possible relationship is there between two clearly different genres? Why compare them? Why use these types of questions which are very general, theoretical, and pretty ambivalent?

Where do tests come from? Not from heaven. They are written by people hired to write them. I’ve done some of this myself, and to the task I brought all my limitations and prejudices, same as all other test writers. None of us write perfect questions and many of us write rather bad ones.

This among many other arguments is a very good reason to abolish high-stakes, end-of-year testing.


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