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Why California Second Graders May Score Poorly on Those Math Tests

Posted: 2003-12-30

Teachers are bullied about not educating children for the 21st century--and then their students are tested on questions about hanging produce scales. Ask yourself: When was the last time you used a produce scale. Someone should tell the test writers that many children have never seen a parent or store clerk use a hanging produce scale.

Every student in my school who's been to Apple Hill, El Dorado County's agri-tourism center, is in danger of missing another question on the math section of the CAT 6. Second-grade students are shown a picture of a vegetable and asked to choose the best way to determine its sale price. I think every one of my students is familiar with this vegetable.

A thermometer is pretty clearly not the correct choice, and a produce scale is pretty clearly the expected answer, since vegetables are often sold by weight. But in our area this particular vegetable is sometimes sold by diameter. So a measuring tape wrapped about the vegetable's equator, which the test authors may have assumed to be a nonsensical answer, may be the "best" answer - that is, the answer that most corresponds with the reality these children have experienced.

(There is a clue in the test booklet, but not in the directions. If children look at the accompanying picture, they will see a small sign with a price per pound. But this test is administered orally and students are instructed to listen to the directions. They are not instructed to look at the picture, and that is not required for all other problems.) The test makers might argue that the experience of buying vegetables by the pound is so universal that students ought to know that would be the best choice.

But in our supermarkets, the scale at the checkout counter is integrated with the counter top. And produce is also sold by the head, by the bunch, by the box or sack, and by the dozen. There may be many children who have never seen a parent or store clerk use a hanging produce scale. In any case, teaching that particular use of the scale is not necessarily part of our curriculum in second grade.

Correctly answering several other problems on this short (thirty-five minutes) high-stakes test seems to depend more on abilities children bring to school than on anything the curriculum or the instructor would be expected to provide. In one, a shape is tilted at an angle and about half covered, so that only a portion is visible. Children are to decide which regular polygon is concealed. Will teachers begin painting pattern blocks black and holding up corners to sharpen children's perceptions of polygons?

A different problem calls for students to place a number in the correct position in a sequence having several blanks. That seems pretty straightforward, except that the sequence counts up from the bottom row, while the identifying letters count down from the top row. When children have just spent their primary years learning to read left-to-right, top-to-bottom, why would they be expected to count up from the bottom, except to make the problem more difficult and to spread out scores?

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