Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Cornerstone of the Cornerstone of School Reform

Here's Part A first question of the 9th grade PARCC ELA/Literacy practice test:

In paragraph 1 of Robert Oppenheimer's speech, what does the phrase recipient of confidences mean?

  • A. The speaker has won numerous awards.
  • B. The speaker feels sure of his own abilities.
  • C. People have told the speaker their secrets.
  • D. People have given the speaker their support.

Here is the paragraph, with the sentence containing the phrase in bold.

I am grateful to the Executive Committee for this chance to talk to you. I should like to talk tonight -- if some of you have long memories perhaps you will regard it as justified -- as a fellow scientist, and at least as a fellow worrier about the fix we are in. I do not have anything very radical to say, or anything that will strike most of you with a great flash of enlightenment. I don't have anything to say that will be of an immense encouragement. In some ways I would have liked to talk to you at an earlier date -- but I couldn't talk to you as a Director. I could not talk, and will not tonight talk, too much about the practical political problems which are involved. There is one good reason for that -- I don't know very much about practical politics. And there is another reason, which has to some extent restrained me in the past. As you know, some of us have been asked to be technical advisors to the Secretary of War, and through him to the President. In the course of this we have naturally discussed things that were on our minds and have been made, often very willingly, the recipient of confidences; it is not possible to speak in detail about what Mr. A thinks and Mr. B doesn't think, or what is going to happen next week, without violating these confidences. I don't think that's important. I think there are issues which are quite simple and quite deep, and which involve us as a group of scientists -- involve us more, perhaps than any other group in the world. I think that it can only help to look a little at what our situation is -- at what has happened to us -- and that this must give us some honesty, some insight, which will be a source of strength in what may be the not-too-easy days ahead. I would like to take it as deep and serious as I know how, and then perhaps come to more immediate questions in the course of the discussion later. I want anyone who feels like it to ask me a question and if I can't answer it, as will often be the case, I will just have to say so.

That's a tidy 393 word paragraph.

Regarding the answer to the first question, it is clearly C. It is a good representative of the new approach to vocabulary: fewer obscure SAT words, more obscure alternate definitions of more common words, used in combination. That's probably a win, but let's face it: a small one. A more extreme example someone reported from the recent PARCC pilot tests required kids to figure out the meaning of "impression" in the naval context. That's not much better than having to guess the antonym of "syzygy." In the end, you just get a vocab list with fewer words and more definitions. But, whatever, it is fine.

Part B:

Besides the sentence that contains the phrase mentioned in Part A, select the other sentence in paragraph 1 that helps the reader understand the meaning of recipient of confidences.

For starters, what earthly reason could there be to exclude the rest of the sentence as the source of context clues? There are 23 words preceding the phrase in that sentence, a thirty word independent clause completes the sentence. That sentence has the best context for understanding the phrase.

To cut to the chase, the correct answer according to the key is "I want anyone who feels like it to ask me a question and if I can't answer it, as will often be the case, I will just have to say so." I had quickly eliminated this one because it is obvious that there are lots of reasons Oppenheimer might not be able to answer a question an atomic physicist might ask in 1945. He points out earlier in the paragraph that he doesn't know enough about "practical politics" to answer questions about that. Other questions that would be relevant that he can't answer might include, "Are we going to hell for this?" "Can we really create a League of Nations that works?" or "Exactly how deep should I dig my bomb shelter?"

But beyond that, what is the message here pedagogically? What is it saying about reading? That if you encounter a puzzling phrase you should keep reading and perhaps 146 words later you'll come to a sentence that will help you understand its meaning? I guess that explains the emphasis on re-reading, cause you're going to be doing a lot of it if you try to read that way.

For the record, I thought "As you know, some of us have been asked to be technical advisors to the Secretary of War, and through him to the President." was probably the best answer, although not a very good one. Also, the answer key cryptically has the phrase "discussion later" highlighted in blue next to the answer, with no indication of what it might refer to. Did they note internally that the question was flawed but put it in the practice test anyhow? Or is there a explanation somewhere in the vaults that explains why theirs is the right answer?

These questions are representative of the cornerstone of the PARCC ELA/Liteacy test, which is the cornerstone of the entire test-driven reform agenda in a big chunk of the country. In this section of the test, you read a prompt and then answer three two part questions, the first is always a vocab question of this type, covering standard 4 ostensibly. The other two questions address standards 2, 3, or 5, but you always get a vocab question in this form, whether you're reading Beatrix Potter in 3rd grade or Oppenheimer in 9th.

Similarly, half of the multiple choice questions are of the "identify the evidence for your previous answer" form.

So basically, whether or not your school will be burned down is dependent on figuring out how to get these kinds of questions answered "correctly." At the end of the day, that's your "reform."

Welcome to the future.

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