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Would I be repeating third grade if I went to a NYC public school?

I think that this, by Greg Palast, is self-explanatory, but I'm going to comment on it anyway, because it shocked me. Even though it probably shouldn't have. Read it and then read on. (Thanks, BZ, for pointing it out.)

* * *

The opinion piece I've linked to quotes two sample questions from the actual test being given to 3rd graders in New York State today and tomorrow. As I understand it, students who don't pass this test have to repeat the 3rd grade. I don't know what happens if they fail it two years in a row.

Let's put aside, for now, all questions about what role, if any, standardized tests should play in determining whether or not individual students should advance a grade. This test is frightening, because I could not conclusively answer the two questions quoted in the piece. The point of the piece is that the tests are clearly biased towards upper and middle class people.

But it may be worse than that. The questions might just be incredibly poorly-written. I grew up middle class and went to Harvard with lots of upper class people (not that I really spoke to them for the most part, but I was at least exposed to them). And I have, um, 20 (count 'em, 20!) years of schooling under my belt, not the 3-5 years that most third graders probably have. And I happen to be a champion at standardized tests, at least the ones that don't involve math. In fact, I remember enjoying taking the standardized state tests that we had to take every other year or every third year in elementary school.

So why are these questions giving me difficulty? Because they're terrible questions, that's why!

The first question quoted is:
The year 1999 was a big one for the Williams sisters. In February, Serena won her first pro singles championship. In March, the sisters met for the first time in a tournament final. Venus won. And at doubles tennis, the Williams girls could not seem to lose that year.
And here's one of the four questions:

The story says that in 1999, the sisters could not seem to lose at doubles tennis. This probably means when they played:

A. two matches in one day
B. against each other
C. with two balls at once
D. as partners

If the Williams sisters played doubles tennis together, on the same side, and won a lot of games that year, then D is clearly the right answer. (I have no idea how many games they won in 1999 or if they played on the same or different doubles teams.) If the Williams sisters played doubles tennis with other partners, then "could not seem to lose that year" could be a clever way of alluding to the fact that at least one of them would win every time they played against each other, and B would make more sense. If at least one of them won, then they "could not seem to lose." (If they played mostly against each other, and not against other doubles teams. But I don't really know enough about how tennis works to answer that question.) If B is the right answer, the reading comprehension portion would be clever, but not grammatically correct, because at least one of them would lose each time they competed and thus, it would be false to say that "the Williams girls [plural] could not seem to lose that year," because only one [singular] of them would win.

If I was taking this test, I would guess D, because it doesn't require the reading comprehension piece to be clever and it probably wasn't meaning to be. If B was right, though, and they were trying to be clever, I would not be surprised by the grammatical error. And I was, of course, only able to answer that question at all because I know that doubles tennis means that two people play on each side, and that singles is when one person plays on each side. (That is all I know about tennis. I have no idea how scoring or matches work.)

The second question was easier, but the answer was also a bit shaky and inconclusive:
Most young tennis stars learn the game from coaches at private clubs. In this sentence, a club is probably a:

F. baseball bat
G. tennis racquet
H. tennis court
J. country club

Greg Palast adds: "Helpfully, for the kids in our 'hood, it explains that a 'country club' is a, 'place where people meet.' Yes, but WHICH people?"

I would guess J, but I'm not sure that H, strictly speaking, is incorrect. I mean, presumably, "Most young tennis stars learn the game from coaches at private" tennis courts, in which case, you could replace the word "club" in their sentence with "tennis court[s]." I could guess J in the end, because I know that country clubs have tennis courts. But if I didn't know that, I think H might really make the most sense. And even knowing that country clubs have tennis courts, I don't think that H is conclusively wrong. And aren't there private tennis clubs? I feel like there are. But I really have no idea. I've never played tennis and never been to a country club.

* * *

In related news, to sooth anxiety-ridden 9 and 10 year olds who are about to take reading tests that include essay questions (could I write an essay in 4th grade? I'm not sure), this article ("Toughening Up For Tests") from yesterday's New York Times discusses "test monsters." One choice excerpt:

"Oftentimes you have kids who just fall apart during the test; they just start crying or having a temper tantrum," said Barbara Cavallo, clinical director for Partnership with Children, a nonprofit group that works in the city schools.


Educators say that easing pressure is not just compassionate. Because anxiety hurts academic performance, too much stress can reduce scores - not a good result when schools that fail to make progress face federal sanctions.


To ease fears, city education officials this year urged teachers and principals to teach strategies for test-taking and effective use of time. Gym teachers were advised to teach isometrics, yoga and other relaxation techniques. Parent coordinators were told to spread the gospel of a good night's sleep.

Guidance counselors were advised against reminding fifth and eighth graders that they might not graduate to middle or high school if they failed. Parents were warned to avoid saying that failing could ruin the family's summer vacation.

Okay, I'm quoting enough that it's no longer an "excerpt." Go and read it on their website.


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