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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 11/19/2009

Diagnosed with “over-comprehension:” My standardized test nightmare

By Valerie Strauss

This really happened (and I wish Arne Duncan, Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich would read this; see why below):

Second grade. Everglades Elementary School in Miami. Mrs. Hirsch, my classroom teacher, passed out the first standardized test I had ever taken. I took the exam and thought I had done well.

I hadn't.

In fact, I got every answer wrong.

How does a good student from a highly educated middle-class background do that in second grade?

I was supposed to circle only one answer, as most multiple choice problems require. I picked more than one and then annotated the answers in the margins. Here’s an example:

Q) Grass is:
a) green
b) brown
c) yellow

This was a flawed question in my second grade eyes.

Our grass was often all three colors. It baked in the hot Miami sun and our sprinkler system did not reach all corners of the small lot. Also, the chinch bugs loved to eat it.
I circled all three, and explained all of this.

The teachers--who were actually terrific--diagnosed my test results as “overcomprehension.” I was, they said, reading too much into everything. They put me in a reading group that they thought would teach me to think in more concrete terms.

They soon realized that it was silly, and after reviewing the test, the school principal, Mrs. Kazer decided to junk it, calling it poorly conceived..

That was in the 1960s. Unfortunately, today's policymakers don’t have the wisdom that Mrs. Kazer showed back then. They have thrust us into an age of high-stakes tests, where results can influence the life of a teacher or a student--or the fate of a school--even though experts on testing say these tests are not particularly sophisticated and often biased.

Many educators who lived through the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program--which put high-stakes tests at the forefront of public education--had hoped that President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, would realize the dangers of standardized testing.

They haven’t--and many folks are disappointed, even angry.

Now we have the spectacle of Duncan on an “education tour” with Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton to trumpet Obama’s education program, called "Race to the Top," which has been called "No Child Left Behind on steroids."

Herbert Kohl, author of a book on education that Duncan has said was instrumental in his thinking, issued an open letter this past summer blasting the education secretary for promoting the importance of standardized tests.

Kohl wrote: “Recently I asked a number of elementary school students what they were learning about and the reactions were consistently, 'We are learning how to do good on the tests.'

"They did not say they were learning to read."

Do you have your own testing nightmare to discuss or you were a whiz? Do you think the results you/your children got were a fair representation of ability?

By Valerie Strauss  | November 19, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, standardized tests  
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While I agree wholeheartedly with your concern regarding standardized testing, "over-comprehension" sounds like a fancy word for "can't follow simple instructions" on a multiple choice test.

Posted by: Etch | November 19, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

The problem of students being "too smart" for standardized testing still exists. The Arizona equivalent of SOLs (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, tests) at the high school level include a writing portion. Conventional wisdom amongst Honors and AP level AIMS-taking students is that if you write too well, you will be marked down just as if you write poorly.

My student's experience is an example of this meme. She received a 768 out of a range of 754-900 (to qualify as "exceeds performance levels") on the Writing portion of the AIMS test. While a very respectable result, it falls at the lower end of the "exceeds" spectrum. This is from a student that has already taken English III Honors in 10th grade, and English 101 and 102 at the local Community College, receiving an "A" grade in all classes. Her ability to write well and fluently is not in question.

If a student this well prepared cannot reach the upper limits of the grading spectrum, exactly who is supposed to? There is something wrong with the grading criteria. The state has realized this, but they have not figured out how to overcome this unintended consequence of standardized testing.

In the big picture, this is inconsequential. It is, however, an example of the limitations of standardized testing.

Posted by: leuchars | November 19, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I worked for a company that prepared standardized tests. We had one question in which students were to link the syllable "head" with another syllable to make another word. I don't remember the two nonsense choices (every question on a standardized test is supposed to have at least one answer choice that is clearly wrong), but the other two choices were "fore"--the desired answer--and "head." We queried the publisher as to why "headstrong" wasn't an answer. The response? "That is a fourth-grade vocabulary word and this is only a third-grade test, so we don't have to worry about students knowing that word."

One of our editors promptly asked if third-grade girls no longer read horse stories, and the answer got changed rapidly.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 19, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

My son (in 1st grade at the time) was taking an overall assessment test one time and he got two of the questions wrong. On the first one, the teacher showed a picture of a truck and a picture of a bicycle and asked which weighed more. My son said that they both weighed the same (he told me his reasoning later on - he saw that they were both pictures and both pictures weighed the same). Another question was multiple choice. It stated "George Washington defended the US in the Revolutionary from: (this was the exact wording)". The answers were a)the French, b)the English, c)the Indians and d)Virginia. My son answered Virginia because that is where George Washington was from and that was his home at the time and in his mind Washington was defending from Virginia.

Posted by: williamhorkan | November 19, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

As a high school teacher and parent of elementary students, I've been shaking my head for 7 years now while they were taught how to "bubble" and take tests. In a good school with solid, experienced teachers. One question from a state approved curriculum asked my daughter to "estimate" the sum of two numbers. Great question except that the answers included the "exact" answer, which she chose and got wrong. In my eyes, she "estimated" perfectly, which was backed up by several math instructor friends, who felt that it was a poorly constructed question too. And don't get me started on A-F grades for 1st graders... Can they read/count/play nice at their grade level or higher/lower? That's all I care about

Posted by: jdbruin | November 19, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Not exactly about standardized testing, but, anyway.... Years ago, a friend of friend was in graduate school working on a degree in psycology. Kids were needed for her in order to practice some skills in administering and when asked if she could us my kids, I said yes. While I don't remember the name of the test, it consisted on lots of picture cards and the kids were asked (test taken individually) to name the thing/person in each picture. Tho' my kids all got excellent "scores" on this test, showing above grade level, etc., I was amused when I asked to see the cards and one that they all missed was a card with the picture of Helen Keller as a senior woman. The funny thing is that I had just read aloud to them in the previous week or so an entire book on Helen Keller. They could have indentified her by a picture of her taken in her earlier days and they surely could have told much about her, but, hey, they "missed" that one.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 20, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Lots of the overachievers responding here have that special anecdote about a particular MC question that was problematic. But that problem didn't shoot them into a classification as part of Dummyville. They got a 97% instead of a 100%. What about all the MC questions over the years they answered correctly? Weren't those a pretty good gauge of what they knew relative to others?
MC questions are everybody's favorite whipping boy but the fact is those types of questions generally do a pretty good job sorting those who know from those who don't.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 21, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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