“There aren’t any fence posts!” a child burst out. Second graders at my school were taking the California Standards Test in Mathematics. One
problem, presumably testing their ability to multiply, showed a pointed piece of wood and said it was a fence post so many inches wide. In a second picture a number of these boards were placed side by side and students were asked to calculate the width of a fence containing that many fence posts. As the child realized, there were no “posts.” The picture showed slats or

For many reasons, students’ scores on these tests may not reflect their actual knowledge of the subjects tested. The following observations are based primarily on the form of the test questions. The math questions are read aloud twice. They are not written. There are various visual clues that help more with some problems than with others. But children who like to
read and identify the key words are not empowered by this test.

In a typical question, children are shown a group of objects, some of which are shaded. They are asked what fraction of the group is shaded. For children who have some understanding of fractions, these questions are not hard. But in one problem which looks the same, the examiner asks what fraction of the group is white. Perhaps this problem is not intended to
trick students who understand fractions into giving a wrong answer, but it seemed that way to me. Remember, the questions are not written. Students must listen closely to the examiner, or they may simply choose an answer based on the visual clues.

Again this year, students were tested on their knowledge of U.S. money. In one problem, the pennies were one centimeter in diameter and the dimes even smaller. Students were asked, “How much money is this?” Before they could add the value of the coins they had to recognize their tiny pictures, imposing a difficulty that is not part of the academic content standards. There was plenty of room on the page to make the coins life size.

Unlike a criterion-referenced test, which is intended to assess whether students have mastered a particular concept, many items on the California Standards Tests seem intended to trick students into giving a wrong answer even when they understand the concept being assessed. For example, to determine whether students could read a tally chart, they were given an
illustration showing twelve animals (three different kinds, placed randomly in the picture). Each of the charts showed the numbers of two animals correctly. Their job was to identify the chart that showed correct numbers
of each animal. The job was complicated by the fact that the half inch tall illustrations, all in shades of gray, might be difficult to distinguish.

In another example typical of standardized tests, students were asked to subtract a two-digit number from a three-digit number, with regrouping. The first answer given was the sum of the two numbers, increasing the likelihood that some students would add rather than subtract.

On the other hand, a question that was apparently supposed to measure understanding of multiplication was too easy. The picture showed four sets of three objects; students simply had to count.

In contrast to the mathematics tests, students had to read the directions for themselves for each question on the California Standards Test of English language arts. In some cases the reading level of the directions may have been significantly above second grade. Thus students who had mastered the concept may have missed the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge because they could not read the directions.

For example, second grade students had to read “Which word from the passage is divided correctly into syllables?” and then choose the correct answer.

Even students who could decode each word in the following sentence might have had trouble with the stilted language: “Which underlined word from the sentence in the box is incorrectly capitalized?””

Surely the wording of the following question could have been improved. “Which of the underlined words are verbs?” seems like a pretty
straightforward question until you notice that three of the four multiple choice answers contain at least one verb. The third choice contains two verbs and a preposition. The fourth choice contains three verbs. Presumably
that is the correct answer, although really it answers the question “In which of the following sets are all the underlined words verbs?”

Second grade students had to read a 300-word passage entitled, “Dolores Huerta.” Some students experienced difficulty applying the rules of English phonics to the last name of the title character. Any students who were
familiar with Dolores and her life work might have been surprised that the story does not mention Cesar Chavez or the farm workers union. I was surprised at the conclusion, “She has shown how much one person can change things.” because surely Dolores Huerta has shown how much one person – working with others – can change things.