Monday, March 11, 2013

Are You Smarter than a Texas Legislator?

Apparently, Texas House members are not smarter than a fifth grader. Nor are Capitol staffers. And they aren't even smart enough to be embarrassed, instead acting as if there is something wrong with the questions asked, not with their inability to give correct answers.

What am I talking about? It's a letter sent to all Texas House members by Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) containing thirteen sample questions from the middle school standardized STAAR tests. Wu admits he missed "two or three" of the questions. He said some Capitol staff "gave up."

Really? I took the test. I think I did better than Wu (I can't say for sure because Wu didn't provide answers). Before I say any more, pause here and take the test yourself. Don't hurry. It's not timed.

After the jump, I give my own impressions of the test. Spoiler alert: I also give my own answers.

Rep. Wu charged that some questions are "confusing, or even maddening." He says "The questions are worded in a purposely misleading way that doesn't measure base knowledge of the subjects but whether the student can catch the word trick or not. I've passed the state bar exam and had trouble understanding some of these questions we're expecting 5th graders to know."

Could the test be improved? Certainly. Should licensed lawyers, state legislators, and Capitol staffers be confused by this test? Certainly not. That says more about them than it says about the test. I, as a parent and a citizen, want our schools to teach our students the combination of factual knowledge and thinking skills needed to be able to pass this test with flying colors, not to be confused by it.

OK, now here comes that spoiler, where I talk about the questions themselves.

Question 1 is the only one that took me a while to figure out what was being asked. The problem tests students' ability to count money, but the wording is not straightforward. Even if they know how to count money, I can understand why middle school students might get this one wrong. Because the test is aimed at kids, I would reword this one question. But adults should be able to figure it out as worded and get it right. (I'm looking at you, Gene Wu.)

Questions 2-6 are straightforward and measure base knowledge.

Question 7 does, too, although it might look like a trick question. Getting it right requires knowing two facts: the temperature at which water boils and the fact that the boiling point does not depend on the volume of water. That's not a trick question. That's base knowledge.

Questions 8-13 are straightforward and measure base knowledge.

I can understand why adults might get two or three of these latter questions wrong. But it's for the opposite reason than what Wu claims. Adults might never have been taught certain facts about Supreme Court cases and American foreign policy, or maybe adults have simply forgotten the facts they were taught in school.

If adults get two or three questions wrong, it is not because the tests don't measure base knowledge. It's not because the tests contain "confusing questions," as Wu claims. That's an excuse. I wouldn't let my kids give such a weak excuse. We shouldn't let our under-performing state legislators give it, either.

Spoiler: my answers are 1b. 2d. 3c. 4a. 5d. 6c. 7c. 8d. 9a. 10d. 11b. 12c. 13b. When Rep. Wu publishes the answers, I'll update with my score.


mccalpin said...

I'll agree with most of your comments, especially with #1 where I had to reread it several times to figure out what the word "digit" referred to - I would expect a little better explanation for middle-schoolers.

But I believe that Rep Wu was right about #2 being confusing...look at what the example says: "low temperature" "winter night" "Lubbock". Any kid in or near Lubbock would know that 24C (about 75F) is an unbelievable temperature for the low in winter in Lubbock. So the kid would reasonably wonder if the "°C" was on the right hand column for a reason - because the left hand column was actually Fahrenheit (as it is commonly displayed on thermometers). If you think about it, 24F is a perfectly reasonable low temp for Lubbock in winter (check

So then the kid might convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract the 18C and come up with some answer. That answer isn't there in the list, of course, which is the only reason I got it right, because the other answer wasn't present - I figured that the 6C had to be the answer, even though the question failed the reasonability test.

This question is like stating the problem as: "Bill's cat has 6 legs and Mark's cat has 4 legs - how much faster can Bill's cat run? (a) 33% faster (b) 50% faster (c) 100% faster (d) I have no idea - cats don't have 6 legs!!!"

To me, it is plausible to argue that that question was designed to trick the kids into thinking that the temperature was supposed to be read in Fahrenheit and thus get it wrong...otherwise, it was an extremely sloppy example (or maybe the makers of the test don't realize how cold it normally is in the Panhandle in winter)...


Mark Steger said...

Bill, I'll grant you that the given low temperature in Lubbock in winter is implausible. My guess is that whoever created the question created it with Fahrenheit as the unit and somewhere along the way some editor turned it into Celsius just by changing F to C, without correcting the thermometer's reading. This question should be reworded.

Not that that reasoning would lead anyone to any other answer than the one that just accepts the stated assumption that it's a really, really warm night in Lubbock. Still, if anyone (kid or adult) can explain his reasoning why any other answer is "correct" I'd give it him.