This bugged the hell out of me yesterday.
I should begin by saying that standardized testing, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Without them, there is nothing to stop schools from becoming diploma mills. For the general good, some standard of education must be maintained by the state. The only way to assess this standard is to test all students.
That being said, standardized testing is only good if the test itself is good. And the Texas TAKS test is not a good test.
I help with math tutorials. Most of the questions are word problems that have some kind of practical value. They're usually somewhat simple, multi-step problems that are in some way useful.
But every fifth or sixth problem is something ridiculous. On Friday a girl was having trouble with a problem. "Which of the following answers is the best estimation for the weight of a small pickup truck?"
Now, there are three separate problems with this question. One, a sixth grade girl doesn't drive, and doesn't know what "small pickup truck" means. She asked me if it meant a toy truck. Sounds silly, but why wouldn't she think that?
Secondly, the four possible answers had two of them in metric weights and two in tons. Their formula chart had sample conversions within each system (like, 2000 pounds is a ton, and 1000 milligrams is a kilogram) but no indication of one to the other. One of the possible answers was "10 kilograms," and this girl had no way of knowing if that was correct. She had no context because she didn't know what a kilogram actually was.
Finally, none of the answers were good answers. The four possibilities were 100 centigrams, 10 kilograms, a half ton, and ten tons. None are even close to the weight of any pickup truck! I'm assuming "one half ton" is correct, partly because it is closer to the actual weight of pickups than the other answers, but mostly because I assume the author of this test question got confused by hearing TV commercials that talk about "half ton pickups," not aware that the commercials are talking about load capacity, not total weight.
It's kind of like asking, "What is the best estimate for the attendance of tonight's baseball game? Is it eleven people, or four trillion people?" Well, "eleven people" is closer, but that's so far off that it can't really be called an estimate.
So what is a teacher to do? This girl asked for help, and I couldn't provide it, and trying to explain to her that the Texas Educational Agency is composed of people who couldn't hack it in the classroom would have been a fruitless endeavor.
If this is what we're telling kids they need to do in order advance to the next grade, then we are doing them a tremendous disservice.