I have issues.
Specifically, as we head into our annual celebration of the Criterion Reference Content Tests Festival next week, I have issues with the questions purporting to provide data on our students’ information skills, aka research/reference skills.
Many are innocuous, asking which word comes first in ABC order, which guide words would include a specified topic, that kind of thing. But many are sloppy, betraying outdated perceptions of how research works even at the elementary level, or worse, complete ignorance.
Here are some examples, taken from the practice questions provided by the state, and which I’ve been using in review lessons (The Evil Game) with 3rd graders:
Which do you need to have if you are going to type a story on a computer?
- a database
- the internet
- writing software
“Writing software”?? Even kindergarteners call it a word processor, for heaven’s sake. So what we end up testing is not their awareness of text generation on a computer, but whether they can synonymize an archaic and unfamiliar term with something they use on a regular basis. And of course, it seems that the test makers are unaware that kids have more than a little experience on websites provided by PBS, General Mills, etc., that encourage them to “type a story.” So, if I don’t know what “writing software” is (to practice my handwriting??), and the last time I went to the computer lab we played on the Dora the Explorer website and wrote stories about our adventures, then the correct answer is obviously 2.
To keep a list of all the animals your class saw in a month, which is the BEST to use?
- a database
- a radio
- an encyclopedia
This inclusion of databases as a technology we need to test kids on is very amusing to me, because not even their teachers know how to use one. I mean, they know how to negotiate a database like the county’s Infinite Campus student database, but almost none of them have ever created a database for regular use, nor do they completely understand why one would do so. The reason is simple: Microsoft Office doesn’t come with a database. And for that reason, our teachers are trained to use Excel’s spreadsheets to keep lists of information in. They have no clue as to how that differs from a database like FileMaker or, heaven help us, Access. Do you know how much this makes me despair?
Of course, we know (or hope) that the student will eliminate radio and encyclopedia as choices because they’re just stupid, but then we’re not testing their information skills, are we?
Which do most people use to connect to the internet?
“Connect to the internet.” You mean like when I place my phone receiver in the cradle of my mo-dem and send the AT* commands to it? Confronted with a term he has surely never heard before, a student is thrown back onto his knowledge of what he’s encountered on the internet. Internet Movie Database? YouTube? Hm, your guess is as good as mine.
Read the part of the index below. Which page should you read to find the information on the bottlenose dolphin?
God in heaven. Yes, I know that a child with even half a brain should be able to untangle that, but is there anything correct about that sample’s formatting? It looks like something an actual 3rd grader would produce.
Or even better:
You know, like an actual freaking index in an actual freaking book.
Mr. Pope wants to make an apple pie, but he can’t find his cookbook. Which resource is the BEST for Mr. Pope to use to look for another recipe?
- a database
- writing software
- the World Wide Web
Oh, where to begin? This question must have been written in 1998, including such quaint terms as “writing software” and “World Wide Web.” Seriously, does anyone call it the World Wide Web any more? Even the major newspapers have stopped capitalizing Internet and Web. The kids these days simply call it “the internet.” So do I. And once I’ve gone on the “World Wide Web,” where will I find recipes? Let me count the ways. Databases all, and found via Google, itself an enormous database. And what if Mr. Pope has one of these? If we’ve been as thorough in our teaching of databases as these questions seem to imply is our job, this question will thoroughly confuse a student.
Which address on the World Wide Web would MOST LIKELY have information about cats and dogs?
This is not an unfair question, but at my school at least I teach the kids that URLs must not be thought of as search engines, i.e., www.whatIwantofind.com is never the way to navigate the internet. Pardon me, the World Wide Web. Still, as an internet-age version of “Which book title would be best for Topic A?,” it’s unoffensive.
Which is the BEST way to select a topic that you will enjoy for a report?
- Find the topic that looks the easiest.
- Choose a topic that interests you.
- Ask a friend what she wrote about.
All right, I’ll close with a question that I really liked and had fun going over with the kids. What we do in the Evil Game is I show the question on the Promethean Board (a smartboard kind of thing) and ask the kids to hold up little cards indicating whether or not they understand what the test makers are trying to ask them. If I get a smattering of question marks or Xs, we stop and deconstruct the question.
With this one, we actually parsed the gender-specific approaches to the problem. I told the girls that #3 was their answer. When they denied it, I launched into a sample dialog: “What are you going to write about? I’m doing koalas. Let’s both do koalas!” They giggled and copped to the plea. The boys were looking smug, until I pointed out that #1 is the boy answer. They readily admitted to it.
The really interesting thing, I pointed out to them, was that the correct answer is actually ambidextrous. For the boys, the correct answer would be “Choose a topic that interests you.” For the girls, it’s “Choose a topic that interests you.” And along with all that, I gave advice on making the correct answer work in real life as well.
On the whole though, the questions our students will face next week during the CRCT Festival regarding information skills are not up to par. The state is not getting good data about how prepared our children are to engage the information age effectively. And because, as the Curriculum Liberation Front says, what’s unassessed is unaddressed, these flawed test items produce flawed and inadequate information instruction across our state.