Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Florida's standardized science tests are deeply flawed

Florida's standardized science tests are deeply flawed:
Like most public schools in the United States these days, schools in Florida depend on students doing well on standardized tests in order to get funding and avoid penalties. If too many students do poorly on the tests, the school can be labeled as "failing". That's why Rob Krampf—who produces science education materials under the nom de Internet, The Happy Scientist—was incredibly frustrated to discover that the guidelines and example questions used to create the State's standardized science test were riddled with scientific errors and horrible question design.

For instance, a glossary definition of "germination" described it as "the process by which plants begin to grow from seed to spore or from seed to bud". But nothing goes from seed to spore. Remember, these are definitions used to create a test that schools' futures depend upon.

Worse than simple errors, though, were multiple choice questions that contained several correct answers, but labeled only one of those correct answers as officially "correct".

Recognize and explain the difference between personal opinion/interpretation and verified observation. This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable.

1. The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses.

2. The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal.

3. Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers.

4. Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals.

The document indicates that 4 is the correct answer, but answers 1 and 3 are also scientifically testable.

When Rob Krampf contacted the State of Florida to tell them about the problems with the test materials, they blew off any concern over the confusing and misleading multiple choice questions. That's why I say those mistakes are worse than the simple fact errors. They're worse because nobody seems to care.

According to Krampf, officials didn't consider misleading multiple choice answers to be a problem because students would have to know information outside of the official, grade-level curriculum in order to be confused. The question above was written for 5th graders, and by the State's standards, 5th graders shouldn't yet know that smells can be quantified via gas chromatograph. They also shouldn't be able to take the knowledge that hardness and softness of materials can be quantified and apply that fact to rose petals.

This is precisely why it's ridiculous to place so much emphasis on standardized testing. It encourages a mindset of teaching to the test, rather than teaching to learn. Emphasize tests for too long, and you're left with education officials who can't even comprehend the idea that 5th graders might be capable of making an independent leap in logic, or might find ways to learn information that wasn't in the curriculum. And then you get tests that are so poorly designed that they penalize kids who learn anything more than exactly what they are told to memorize. That's not a fair system, and it shouldn't be the only thing that determines whether or not we consider a school a "failure".

Read Rob Krampf's full post on the problems with Florida's science tests.

Thanks to Austin Damiani!

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