So often when we talk about standardized testing in public schools, we end up talking across one another. Us grown-ups remember the tests we took, either with the sensation of quivering goo inside or with cool confidence. Surely the tests of today are much the same. If the kids aren't passing them, then the teachers must suck.
In California, there are sample questions for every grade level available. You can work through these yourself and come to a conclusion about what is expected of kids - possibly your own kid - in California today. Too much? Too little? If you want to truly duplicate the experience, I suggest printing them out and working them. The samples have more questions than a student will experience, but as an adult, perhaps that evens the challenge a bit.
I thought it might be interesting to highlight and discuss some of the questions asked on the 5th grade science exam, in part because it's the first grade level where science is tested by the California STAR regimen, and in part because my own child will be expected to do this exam soon.
So as background, I have a degree in engineering, so I'm quite comfortable with science. I studied genetics as a hobby, I've worked building electronics, and incidentally, have a more than passing familiarity with ceramics, which I consider to be geology on a human scale, with a strong dash of chemistry and materials science.
(Mouse over the images to see my snarky comments!)
All That Time with the Rock Collection Finally Pays Off
Reading through the sample questions, I admit, I'm a bit intimidated. A lot of the questions are covering science I did not learn until high school or even college, and while I'd get a pretty good score, this would not be a walk in the park for me. I'd have to think carefully and extrapolate from first principles. Did you learn about Mohs values, minerals, and geology in your 5th grade?
I was able to guess the answer because I am good at guessing on multiple choice exams. I was never taught anything about shale or slate in school. If this test is supposed to be measuring my geological and mineralogical knowledge or my school's teaching of geology, my results do not reflect that.
I think these are two good questions. They are fairly clear, and they require an understanding of the science to answer. If you know the science, and you understand how to find the "best answer" on a multiple choice exam, you should get them.
(Of course, it all depends on the definition of use, now, doesn't it?)
That said, I learned biology at this level in 7th grade. Elementary school in the '70s had only cursory science in my area. I recall tormenting mealworms with colored squares and a kiddie pool full of crayfish as the extent of our biology.
By contrast, my daughter did real science experiments in kindergarten growing plants with simple variables (water/no water, light/no light, dirt/no dirt), drawing the results in their lab books, and writing simple conclusions.
Say, little girl, have you ever been outside?
City kids will have to reason this one out from first principles, and a plant that leans towards light is pretty plausible. Kids who live on California's north coast and who have been outside will know this one instantly.
I don't know when I learned about electromagnetism, but it was not in elementary school. Richard Feynman used to give a highly suggestive demonstration of this phenomenon that could generate a current by moving a magnetic core in and out of the cylindrical coils... in, out, in, out, you know, in a good rhythm...
This may explain why, in my day, it was not taught in 5th grade.
You can probably get this one just from knowing what the word "parallel" means, for what it is worth.
But that goes to show just how much of this test, ostensibly about science, tests English fluency. No matter how well your teacher taught science, or how much you understand about how things work, or how easy it would be for you to take a box of gears and junk and build a robot with it, if you are not a fluent English reader, you will not get a good score on this test. These questions require close, careful reading after a couple of hours of close, careful reading and decision-making. It is not an easy task.
Can you determine how this machine works from a simple line drawing?
Ice cream - all kids love it! You'd think this would be a great kid-friendly science question. But, I think for kids who haven't made ice cream in one of these old fashioned ice cream makers, it will be very hard to understand that the salt water isn't being added to the ice cream ingredients.
For that matter, it's not clear that this is a hand crank device. If you don't know how it works, it's not at all obvious that the solution is used for cooling, and pretty reasonable to think it might be needed to conduct electricity for a motor.
This is a classic trick question - one that will only be answered by kids who read questions very, very closely and who can quickly size up an unfamiliar situation. Or, kids who have moms (or possibly teachers) who buy hand crank ice cream makers and make ice cream at home. It's not really doing a good job of testing science understanding.
This is too bad, really, because it's a great idea. Perhaps a clearer diagram would have helped. And hey, why not have ice-cream-making as part of the curriculum for every 5th grade class? It's a perfect activity: science you can eat.
Why does Grandma even need Kidneys, Anyway?
Straightforward. Probably not something I learned in 5th grade.
I know my daughter's class did this at the beginning of the year, because she made a diorama of organ systems inside a plastic horse for one of her assignments. For that matter, it's also covered by the novice curriculum in 4H. Do your kids know the differences between the digestive systems of a human, a sheep, a cow, and a chicken? Surprisingly, mine does.
Perhaps on the math they should do a companion problem like "Sarah's kidneys are in failure, so she goes to the hospital for dialysis three times a week to have the toxins removed from her blood by machine. If Sarah has $50,000 in savings and each treatment costs $1,500, how many treatments can she afford before her blood fills with toxins and she dies?"
Probably too gritty for them.
Today's Science Lesson is a Trip to the Beach
Although I know what the BEST answer from their point of view is (D), truly this arch was likely formed by all these processes. The rock itself is the result of plate tectonics and volcanism and deposition. The arch formed because parts were softer than others, eroded away by the incessant pounding of the surf... or maybe part of it fell during an earthquake. Certainly there's not a scrap of land in California not affected by plate tectonics and earthquakes.
By the way, these kinds of rock formations make for some mighty spectacular sections of the coastline. They're well worth seeing in person.
</ ad for California coastal tourism>
(This exam question brought to you by the Mendocino Tourism Board and the Cambria Chamber of Commerce.)
How do YOU Make a Canyon?
It's good to know that there's no equivocation about geological processes in the California curriculum. They take a long time, like water on a rock.
Interestingly, this is not a question you could get unless you know where the Grand Canyon is and how it was formed. You can't derive it by understanding the principles of those processes and looking at this single low-resolution black and white image. This is strictly a memorization issue, and hopes that someone, somewhere mentioned that the Grand Canyon is in Arizona and was formed by the mighty Colorado River.
I guessed this one correctly only because I decided that if it was 75° F in California, that it was extremely unlikely to rain (let alone snow or hail) any time soon. If I had recently moved here from Kentucky, I might have gotten this wrong.
Or perhaps it's clear from some part of the science curriculum the 5th graders know. I was never taught anything about weather in school.
I learned about hurricane strength from watching too much TV. Eat it, anti-TV granola-mothers!
You're only good for creating raw material for plant photosynthesis
You'd better know your gases. This is a straightforward question with only one correct answer, but I would be surprised if even half of the members of Congress can answer it correctly.
Using the Scientific Method
I like this one. The correct answer is clearly C, but it's not easy, and it's a very good test of the student's understanding of the scientific method. What is the experimenter testing with this design?
Virtual volume of a virtual object
This is one of those concepts that everyone should know. It is surprisingly useful as a bit of everyday knowledge.
If you believed they put a Man on the Moon...
Another good question, and not easy. You could know a lot about planets and gravity and still pick the wrong answer.
Answers? Why, weren't they all obvious? The kids don't get 'em, but are left to puzzle for the rest of the day whether they chose correctly. Ah well, one of the privileges of age is, in fact, the answer sheet (2.2 MB PDF). Scroll to the end, or you can see the questions I selected with the answers below.
(32: C, 63: D, 61: D, 30: C, 31: C, 73: D, 16: A, 14: C, 13: C, 29: C, 65: D, 64: B, 54: A, 53: C, 24: A, 71: C, 74: A, 59: A )
Yes, it was a long diary. The test is a lot longer. So if you didn't make it to the end...
To quote Ursula the Sea Witch, "Life's full of tough choices, isn't it?"