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What I Saw at the Data Revolution

Writing in the Autumn, 2009 issue of the City Journal, Marcus Winters seeks to blame the “narrow political interests” of teachers’ unions for resisting the linkage of test scores to teachers, and thereby blocking New York access to the Race to the Top honeypot. He’s seen the future, and it’s a data revolution resting on standardized tests. This data revolution “promises to move education policy away from politics,” Winters writes. “Numbers don’t have agendas or run for reelection.”

No, of course they don’t. But the people who produce those numbers do. We would all be wise to recognize that the veneer of scientific objectivity coating most standardized tests is paper-thin. Politics infuses the form that standardized tests take; their length; how they are scored, and by whom; the content standards that appear on the tests; and the judgments about which levels of performance are to be labeled proficient.

Here’s what I saw at the data revolution:

One of the seventh-grade algebra standards in New York State’s Mathematics Core Curriculum is the following:

7.A.3 Identify a polynomial as an algebraic expression containing one or more terms

In 2008, the following item appeared on the eighth-grade New York State mathematics test.

24. Which of these phrases best describes a polynomial?

a. a decimal that is non-terminating or non-repeating
b. an algebraic expression containing one or more terms
c. a close-planed figure formed by three or more line segments
d. a number greater than one that has exactly two different factors

67% of New York eighth-graders got the item correct.

How does an item that is such a poor representation of the mathematical skill it is intended to measure wind up on the state exam? Did it write itself? Or did people, with political interests, write and approve it?

And can people, with political interests, succeed in fixing the New York State assessment system?

(hat tip to my colleague Jennifer Jennings for pointing out the test item)

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