by John Pearson
Last week, my kids took a test that I dread even more than the state standardized test - the district benchmark test. Actually they took four benchmarks. First was science, then reading, then math, then social studies.
Besides the usual reasons for hating the benchmarks - they're poorly written, the kids are only allowed one hour per test which is just not enough time to do a good job, and the kids cannot receive any reading assistance, even on the non-reading tests - I always dread my class’ performance. This being the first standardized test of the year, a large percentage of the students don't fare well.
You would think that the kids would understand that the way we practice solving math problems in class is the way they should solve math problems on a test. I mean, Lebron James doesn't shoot jump shots in practice but then try to kick the ball through the hoop in a game. A concert pianist doesn't sweep her trained fingers across the keys in practice only to pound out a sonata with her elbows at the recital.
Never once in class have we glanced at a problem, noticed a couple of numbers, added them up in our heads, and then picked the answer that's closest. However, that's exactly what some of my kids did on the math benchmark.
I suppose I can't be too harsh on those kids. After all, they at least glanced at the problems. One of my kids, upon receiving his science test booklet and his answer document, pushed the test booklet to the side and proceeded to randomly fill in bubbles. There were only 20 questions on the test, but this young man filled in bubbles for all 50 lines of the answer sheet.
In case you were wondering, this child is not new to the country. New to the planet, maybe.
On the math test, the errors tended to be a result of not thinking things through. A boy with 19 apples somehow gave 32 to a friend. A 36 page comic book will take 48 days to read. 57 boys and 36 girls were selling popcorn, yet the total number of kids was only 19.
The mistakes on the science test were much more fun to read. By "fun," of course I mean "depressing."
The majority of my kids decided that a short-sleeved shirt and sandals would be the best attire for an outdoors investigation. Several children would use a ruler or a stopwatch to measure the temperature of melting chocolate. Six of my students believe that a magnet can attract a cardboard box. Most confounding of all was from a question that asked which action would be correct to do during an investigation, where three of my kids chose "Decide not to tell your teacher about a small cut on your finger."
It should surprise no one that one of the kids who chose this answer was the same one who didn't even open his book until forced to do so.
Clearly, we have a lot of work to do this year. I suppose the benchmarks did serve some purpose after all, which was to show that we need to look more closely at test strategies.
Making a pretty picture with the bubbles will not be one of those strategies.
John Pearson is a third-grade math and science teacher in Dallas, Texas. He has degrees in mechanical engineering from Duke University and Texas A&M, so most consider his math abilities adequate enough to teach nine-year olds. He is also the author of Learn Me Good (Lulu, 2006), a funny, fictionalized account of his first year in education. Read more at www.learnmegood.com