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Doubling the Compost Box

If you are on Facebook you have probably seen the articles about the unnamed school board member who couldn't do any of the math problems on the math standardized test (and who couldn't pass the reading section). Most of the discussion drew the conclusion that the tests were too hard for 10th graders and covered topics that were irrelevant to success (at least, if "success" is defined by being an unnamed school board member).

(There was also an unspoken undercurrent that, as standardized testing had been embraced by the Pepsi party, maligning it was a good signal of one's allegiance to the Coke party.)

The article, of course, did not give any examples of the questions that were too hard, leaving open the alternative hypothesis that perhaps one simply doesn't have to be very bright to serve on a school board. (Having casually observed the Seattle School Board over the last several years, I am inclined toward this position.)

You probably didn't see the follow-up article outing the test failer as someone with a Bachelor's in Education (which he describes as a "Bachelor of Science", making it sound like he has a science degree, which he doesn't), a Master's in Education, and a Master's in Educational Psychology. Given my prior that each of these degrees is worthless (except, of course, for its value in jumping through some sort of public-servant-pay-grade hoop), I feel even safer about my alternative hypothesis.

Luckily, the second article names the test. It's the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the state of Florida has thoughtfully provided sample questions on the web. The questions are not particularly interesting, nor are they particularly hard:

(Although the test is quite plainly biased against students from cultures that lack access to composting.)

What is interesting is his final criticism:

The math section, he said, tests information that most people don’t need when they get out of school.

There is a sense in which this is true. Most people never compute the volumes of composting bins. (Although if the city of Seattle gets its way, soon we'll all be forced to.)

There's also a larger sense in which it's false. Solving word problems is a valuable skill (that most people sadly lack), and word problems have to be about something. And whatever that something is, probably most kids will never have to know its specifics again.

But there's a bigger sense in which it's irrelevant. Most of what you learn in high school (insofar as you learn anything) is information that you'll never need again. I myself have forgotten almost all of my American history (although I remember our teacher's stories about her redneck neighbors, who used to jump out of their second-story door after their deck collapsed), almost all of my chemistry (although I remember that the teacher had a toy stuffed mole named Avogadro), almost all of my English lit (although I remember that F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to use "flower imagery"), almost all of my Spanish (although I remember listening to cassette tapes of commercials for "Pal-mo-LEE-vay"), almost all of the pep rallies (although I remember that DHS Wildcats are "paw-some"), almost all of the motivational assemblies (although I remember the "what thou see-est, that thou be-est" guy), and almost all of my classmates (although I remember Josh Adams, because he visits Seattle every 10 years or so).

And the things you do need to know vary a lot from person to person. While it's important to me that the Wildcats are paw-some, it might be equally important to Josh Adams that when the Wildcats rock the house they rock it all the way down. A test that asks about one neglects the other, and vice versa.

To the extent that most of what you learn in school is useless (and, believe me, most of what you learn in school is useless), any test that makes sure you actually learned it is going to be testing information that you don't actually need. Blaming the test for that hardly seems fair.

And to the extent that your fancy degrees in education are useless (and, believe me, your fancy degrees in education are useless), then they're not going to help you answer questions on a test. Again, blaming the test hardly seems fair.

All that said, standardized tests are essentially a 19th-century technology, and fixing education will almost certainly entail getting rid of them (although merely getting rid of them will not fix education in the slightest). I don't mean to offer a blanket defense for them, only a defense against the criticism "I have three degrees and can't do the test and therefore the problem is with the test."

That leaves only the unresolved issue that you don't have to be particularly competent to be on the school board, although if progressive Seattle is cool with it, then I imagine everyone else is too.

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