School districts in Ohio recently administered the state’s graduation tests, which every student must pass in order to receive a diploma. The tests were designed to evaluate student achievement in the areas of reading, math, writing, science and social studies. Although the test has been required since 2003, Ohio went with a different testing company this year.
Despite the new company, the tests appeared, unfortunately, quite similar to those of the previous years. The reading test, which was administered on Monday, lacked variety. Of the ten reading passages in the test, four of them were poems. As an English teacher, I had to question whether a student’s eligibility to graduate should be dependant on passing a test from which half of the content was poetry.
The other passages were generally weak. One essay described an unusual plant’s effect on traditional gardens. Another one chronicled a girl’s love of sports during an era in which girls had limited athletic opportunities. A third passage was a brief narrative about a runner who lost a race after taking a surprising early lead.
Few of the passages were relevant to subjects or skills that a student needs to know before graduation. There were no questions evaluating how well one comprehends practical literature, such as manuals or instruction books. The test contained nothing about distinguishing facts from inferences, such as in advertisements or propaganda material.
The writing test required students to complete two lengthy essays, several short responses, and a dozen multiple choice items. The essays, each worth 18 points, used poorly-prepared prompts. This was especially true for the final essay, which vaguely requested the student to explain to elementary children the differences between grade school and high school. Obviously the differences are so numerous that a student would have a very difficult time deciding which ones to emphasize in an essay that very likely determines whether he receives a diploma.
The questions calling for shorter responses, worth two points each, were better designed. Several of them posed a debatable topic, allowing students to choose a side and support his decision. The best question was probably one asking students to oppose or defend a mall’s decision to require parental supervision of anyone under sixteen.
The multiple choice questions lacked variety. Most of them concerned editing decisions, asking students to choose the best way to alter certain usage errors. More than half of those errors involved placement of commas. As someone who has taught English for twenty-five years, I can say that the use of the comma is one of the most difficult grammatical rules to master. In fact, grammar scholars still disagree on certain aspects of comma placement. So how can the state of Ohio use knowledge of the comma to determine whether a student receives his diploma?
Most students seemed to finish the social studies test much more quickly than the other portions, many finishing in a little over an hour. There was a lack of content in the test, which ignored world history completely. Every question seemed to pertain strictly to United States history. There were ten questions about the communist aggression in the decades after World War II, which accounts for an almost infinitesimal percentage of events covered in the field of social studies.
The science portion of the Ohio Graduation Test seemed to be the most balanced, in that it contained an equal amount of questions from the different fields of science. The subjects of botany, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and other areas were equally represented. The test did seem to include a few too many questions about the environment and the plight of pollution.
The mathematics test was the most challenging for many students. The test included several graph questions, some algebra, and a few problems requiring basic math skills such as multiplication and division. Too much of the test was geared toward geometry, and there was a lack of traditional story problems. Also the test had very little opportunity to evaluate a student’s skill at calculating percentages, which is one of the most practical math skills in a society with the financial crucible ours is currently experiencing.
Judging from the math portion of the test, our society has misplaced priorities. We expect a student to configure the degrees of a hypotenuse, but we don’t care if he can balance a checkbook. That’s a skill we obviously need to teach not only our students, but our politicians as well.