Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Should kids be smart or proficient?

You're a person of at least modest intelligence, right? Of course you are, or you wouldn't be reading this right now; you'd be poring over Liz Smith's column, looking for the latest news of Leonardo DiCaprio. Since you're here, though, let's reward your good taste with this little brain-teaser:

"Larry was following a recipe to make a dessert. The recipe called for two cups of pineapple. By mistake, Larry bought a one-pound, three-ounce can of pineapple. How much pineapple did he have left after he made the dessert?"

A. None. Larry is a clod, and after spilling the entire can on the floor, he ended up using lima beans to make the dessert.

B. Twelve baskets filled with loaves and fishes.

C. What's Larry doing making dessert, anyway? That's Moe's job.

D. Photosynthesis.

If you had trouble answering this simple word problem, don't feel bad. It just means that you're not as intelligent as the average sixth-grader, at least according to the people who make up the academic proficiency tests used by Ohio schools. The question above was taken from an actual 6th-grade proficiency test. And OK, maybe I fine-tuned the answers a little, but the options they gave didn't make any more sense to me than mine do.

If you don't have kids in school, you might not be familiar with these tests, which for the past few years have been given to students in the 4th, 6th, 9th, and 12th grades. They cover such subjects as math, reading, writing, citizenship, and science.

A number of parents, and even some teachers, have questioned the usefulness of the tests, claiming they don't accurately measure knowledge. And teachers, pressured to have their students do well, end up "teaching to the test" instead of covering material in class that the kids really ought to know. Plus, all the days they spend giving the state tests might be used for better things, such as, oh, I don't know . . . maybe teaching?

As far as I can see, the results of these tests are used by schools and districts mainly to establish bragging rights when they compare themselves to other schools and districts.

Superintendent A: "Our basketball team won the state title again this year. How'd yours do? Weren't they like, 2-23? What a shame."

Superintendent B: "Oh yeah? Well, our 12th-graders scored higher in their citizenship test than your gym rats did, so what do you think of that, Mr. Athletic Supporter?"

It's tempting to dismiss these tests as yet another brilliant idea from the same great minds that gave us phonetic spelling and the New Math. Remember, these are people who converse in sentences like this - "Brain-compatible curriculum integration requires developmentally appropriate strategies applied in an inquiry-centered, holistic paradigm favoring process-based learning styles."

Unfortunately, these tests don't seem so silly when you find out that kids who don't pass them won't get promoted or be allowed to graduate from high school.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with measuring students' progress, or holding them accountable for their academic achievement. But silly me, I thought they already had tools to do this. They're called "exams." And if kids didn't do well on these exams, then at the end of the school year, they would "flunk" and have to repeat the same grade the following year.

Except these days, schools can't even flunk a kid - oops, I mean "retain" him - unless the parents agree. And plenty of parents don't, regardless of what will become of Junior when he gets to the next grade and thinks all the subjects are being taught in Esperanto.

Before we go, let me toss you one more proficiency-test question: "Describe the differences and similarities among capitalism, socialism, and communism."

If you're not brain-compatible with this one, I guess it's a lucky thing for you that you're not back in the 9th grade, or they might never let you out.

Mike Kelly's column appears on Tuesdays. Readers may e-mail him at

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