Brainstorming The Next Standardized Reading Test: A Guide, Part II

The days fly and it’s been too many now since we started brainstorming ideas on how to properly test 8th Graders on reading in New Mexico.  We’ve been busy, but maybe one reason the days flew by is just how life-alteringly boring it is to read the 8th Grade “Language Arts” Standards/Benchmarks/Strands/Whatever.   All sales of OTC and prescription sleep medications are a waste, as a single look at these “standards” is enough to induce instant slumber.

Still, armed with enough coffee anything is possible.  And it is with plenty of Italian roast coursing the veins that we at least try to tackle one more aspect of these “standards,” and how we can trick some kids into missing questions about the “standards,” thus proving that some are “proficient” and some aren’t.  Which is the whole point of this exercise, well, outside of the political soap box “wut about teh childrens?!??1!!” element.

Just as we did last time, we’ll pretend that “you” have been hired by Pearson to construct the test.  Last time we figured out that testing for writing skill was largely off the table, as nobody cares about writing any more. We also determined that anything that smacks of any technological advance since the font-changing ball of an IBM Selectric typewriter is not permitted.

Now let’s get, finally, to onomatopoeia, a word that your humble blogger spells just like everyone else in the world…by misspelling it and then using his right mouse button to see better choices, then clicking the one that looks most like the hazy way he remembers it being spelled.  Being as everyone in the world “spells” onomatopoeia using this method, it certainly warrants inclusion in any standardized test.  This is due to the simple fact that testing is now all about “Item Response Theory,” which I’ll try to remember to get back to in a bit.

First, let’s look at the “standard/benchmark/whatever” that deals with Trivial Pursuit crap like onomatopoeia:

Identify significant literary devices (e.g., metaphor, symbolism, dialect, irony) to understand the author’s meaning and perspective.

In case you don’t know it, onomatopoeia is one of those “literary devices” mentioned above.  It’s the idea that certain words sound really cool, matching the sound with the word’s meaning.  “Boom” is your classic word with onomatopoeia.

My point in bothering to define this word is not that I expect you to be unfamiliar with the term.  Heck, Pearson hired you to construct a standardized reading test.  Of course you know what onomatopoeia is.  Instead, let’s consider how you felt why your humble blogger was pedantically “instructing” you in what onomatopoeia is.  Did you get the feeling that you’d have to be stupid to not know what it meant?  Did you also ask yourself:  “who really gives a flying two-bit fig about this term and what it means?”

Well, if your answers to the two questions above were “yes” and “nobody” that means we’ve got us the PERFECT standardized test reading question!  The point of questions on a standardized test is to find out who is stupid for not knowing something nobody really cares about.  I have a simple test for this:

Does the mention of Subject X by Person Y ALWAYS lead *normal Person Z to think that Person Y is a irritating, know-it-all jerk who is soul-bent on making those around him/her feel inadequate intellectually?  If so, Subject X is PERFECT for inclusion in a standardized test.

Hence, questions about “literary devices” are the ne plus ultra of any quality standardized reading test.  And yes, I am using the Latin expression ne plus ultra as yet another example.  Ne plus ultra would make for a damn fine standardized test question.

But, Scot, you ask, where’s the science behind your point concerning “literary devices”?  I’m glad you asked.  That question gets us back to “Item Response Theory.”   I won’t try to fully explain “IRT” and will instead simply request that you spend tons of time wading through tons of links found via an online search.

When you get through spending tons of time deciphering statistical graphs and such, I’m thinking you’ll agree with me that “Item Response Theory” cares zero percent about whether a particular fact or concept is worthy of being known, and 100% about whether or not the particular fact/concept happens to be known by the ideal percentage of people, those percentages being something around 60/40, with the 60% to be considered “proficient” and the 40% to be considered political soap box bait.

Strangely, social scientists far, far smarter than I have pretty much determined the same thing.  In particular,  researcher Walter Stroup from the University of Texas at Austin discovered “Item Response Theory” results in a test instrument

That produces a test that Mr. Stroup said is more sensitive to how it ranks students than to measuring what they have learned.

Uh, oh.

And like all truly good social science conclusions, Dr. (I’m guessing he’s a Dr.) Stroup’s is one that really just codifies what we all felt and knew all along.  Good social science is like a Bob Dylan song in that regard, but that’s a subject best saved for another time.  Getting back to “Item Response Theory,” Dr. Stroup’s findings regarding student progress not matching with IRT-constructed testing is feeding the growing fire of those opposed to the cult of standardized testing.

Still, Pearson and the standardized testing lobby are far too powerful to be negatively affected by things like “facts,” and I’m sure, imaginary “you person” that you’ll continue to cash checks from Pearson for years to come if you do a good job in crafting this 8th Grade Reading test.

So…put in a bunch of questions on “literary devices,” but skip that “Simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as'” because the percentage of folks who know that is too high.  Onomatopoeia (which, again, your humble blogger has misspelled then right-button clicked to correctness) is your golden ticket, here.

Boom goes the testing dynamite, so to speak.

* Where “normal person” is defined as “not Stephen Hawking, Gore Vidal or that guy who won all that money on ‘Jeopardy'”.


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