Putting Education Reform To The Test

Explaining How A Florida Science Test Provides A Lesson In Kafka

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A statue in Prague honoring author Franz Kafka.

How does a science lesson turns Kafkaesque?

Blogger Robert Krampf got a taste of the absurdist ends to which author Franz Kafka used bureaucrats when he brought concerns about practice questions on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test science exam to the state Department of Education.

Krampf found four of 25 practice science questions used inaccurate definitions or had multiple answers that were scientifically correct.

But only one answer was correct in the eyes of the state Department of Education.

Maybe the life lesson learned from the FCAT science exam practice questions is more important to students than the test itself — that sussing out the right answer often depends on who is asking the question.

“They bend over backward to say ‘Yes, your science is correct, but we’re right,'” Krampf said. “‘And that’s the way it is.’

“As a science educator that has been incredibly frustrating.”

Part of the Department of Education response hinges on the idea that the correct answer is based on the taught curriculum — and therefore the only correct answer is the only material a 5th grader has already learned in school. (Krampf argues this penalizes smart or curious children who may have worked ahead of the grade level curriculum).

Often that means, as Kafka loved to do, deciphering the intentions of a bureaucrat (or a bureaucratically-motivated test designer).

You can see it in the question about predators that Krampf flagged.

The definition given to students is loose and scientifically inaccurate. But the test is asking students what the correct answer is based on the information given them.

The same goes for the question asking which observations are scientifically testable. All four answers are (probably) scientifically testable, but it’s pretty intuitive that ‘D’ is the correct answer for a fifth grader.

Critics of so-called high-stakes testing like to point to these examples and the high-profile “The Hare and the Pineapple” controversy in New York.  Too much classroom time is spent ‘teaching to the test,’ they argue.

So what lessons do experts see in the tests?

Harvard University researcher Daniel Koretz says standardized tests should be thought of more like a political poll — just a snapshot sampling of a student’s knowledge — rather than a comprehensive record of it. But that sampling, Koretz says, does provide some guidance on what teachers and schools need to do better.

Manhattan Institute researcher Marcus Winters believes that even when instructors are ‘teaching to the test’ they adopt techniques that help students learn more.

Krampf isn’t buying the argument. He’s a scientist. He wants evidence and conclusions.

“Instead of testing their knowledge in science ,” Krampf said, “it becomes a test of social dynamics of figuring out what the test writer is trying to get you to answer. Which is a totally different thing.”



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