Monday, March 26, 2012

Can you break the code of standardized test (at least WA's MSP) questions?

Explanations of how to decode the Questions and Answers without reading the passages.

1.   What is the main idea of “Excerpt from Iditarod Dream”?

A.   Sled dog racing is a thrilling and dangerous sport.
B.   Sled dog racing requires teamwork and training. 
C.   Sled dog racing requires specialized equipment. 
D.  Sled dog racing can be a family activity.

First, this is a main idea question, so we need to have a sentence that is ‘worthy’ of serving as a main idea.  It’s hard to explain, but ask a nearby 8th grader, he or she will understand that some of these just don’t ‘feel’ like MSP-type main idea answers.  They’re not serious or important or high-quality enough, or at least they’re not as serious as some other options. 

‘Specialized equipment’ isn’t as important a point as either ‘teamwork and training’ or ‘thrilling and dangerous.’  ‘Family activity’ is almost non-sensical in that it violates expectation of what we might think or hear about dog sledding.  While there may indeed be a family out there that makes sledding one of their activities, this would be an oddity.  The MSP doesn’t usually make main points out of oddities.

‘Teamwork and training’ or ‘thrilling and dangerous’ are the best options, then.  But the MSP often includes readings with a kind of moral element.  There are an unusual number of uplifting or inspiring stories.  Whether a little known figure gallant for service to others, or a determined soul who has surmounted obstacles to achieve something and/or (better yet) learned some important life lesson, MSP questions go through a vetting process that renders controversial or negative material unlikely to make the final cut. 

Thinking of it in this way, ‘thrilling and dangerous’ has just a hint of the selfish and irresponsible.  ‘Teamwork and training,’ by contrast, is the kind of emphasis the MSP can and likes to support.  I’d probably go with that...and I’d turn out to be right.

According to “Excerpt from Iditarod Dream,” why does Dusty decide to help the other racers build a fire?

A.   He uses the fire light to see the trail markers
B.   He thinks the fire will help him stay awake. 
C.   He is following the rule of the wilderness. 
D.  He needs to cook the dogs’ frozen meat.

MSP can tend toward the ‘unusual’ option.  C jumped out immediately because it’s of a different quality from the others, which are all specific and concrete things.  C, by contrast, is an interestingly oblique answer that hints of something ‘higher’ than the other three.  The combination of uniqueness and grandness makes C too hard to pass up, and doing so would yield a wrong answer--C is correct.

According to “Excerpt from Iditarod Dream,” how would Dusty most likely react to entering another dog sled race?

A.    He would be hopeful because he came so close to winning.
B.    He would be nervous because he had trouble staying on the trail at night.
C.    He would be excited because he knew how it felt to cross the finish line in the lead.
D.   He would be anxious because he ran out of supplies and needed more for the next race.

On first blush, this ostensibly ‘prediction’ question seems unanswerable without reading the passage.  Indeed, how can we predict anything with such a dearth of knowledge of the situation.  Further, each question in this response contains a detail that we can only guess at, so we’re left with a higher degree of uncertainty than in the previous questions.  But ultimately we are trying to get the correct test answer here, not predict something about Dusty, so things are not as hopeless as they seem. 

First, cover all the answers from the word ‘because’ onward.  You are left with a list of adjectives about how Dusty would feel.  The old advice to ‘look for the stronger word,’ and the current advice to think about uplift and inspiration could be of some help.  Granted, every test item won’t work this way, but following these two ‘rules,’ C--excited--breaks out to an early lead in our race to decide.  Option A has the tinge of the overly competitive.  MSP probably tends to de-emphasize things like winning.  Just look how the test renders ‘winning’ in option C--‘knew how it felt to cross the finish line in the lead.’  They seem to be at pains to avoid a word that sits uncomfortably in the social culture of collaborative education.  8th graders may not follow or care about the culture of education, but they do pick up on patterns, and the combination of that quirky way of saying ‘win’ and the most upbeat adjective--‘excited’--make C a plausible option. 

Granted, this explanation is much more abstruse and convoluted, so do some more work by covering every answer from the adjective back to the beginning of the sentence and leave exposed what really are the first part of four conditional statements.   For instance, option A can rearrange to say “He came close to winning, so he will be hopeful.” 

You’ll note that not all the events can occur in the story.  How could Dusty come close to winning and cross the finish line in the lead? He can’t, so either A or C is incorrect.  It’s unlikely that both A and C are incorrect, as Dusty had to either win or not win, and the answer set would be strangely vexing if one of the causal elements (latter part of the statement) were true, but that answer were wrong. It would indeed be a more challenging test if readers had to actually make inferences about Dusty’s feeling--by, say, dealing with several true statements.  But such are not as easily graded as the MSP needs to be. 

Using the ‘deep’ or ‘serious’ test, D is the least likely--it does not have the feel of high level of thinking. B is a contender, but its chances are reduced by the difficulty of both A and C then being incorrect.  I’m going with C, the odd wording for ‘win’ being too strong a pull to avoid. 

Now, when you eventually do read the passage, all you really have to do is simply confirm which of the events described in the latter part of each sentence actually happened.  Did Dusty win?  If so, it’s C.  Most of the time the option set will contain only one accurate description of an event which actually occurs in the story, making the corresponding answer option the obvious choice.  

The student taking the test does not really have to predict, s/he just has to look for which of the events described in the answer options really did happen.  Almost certainly only one occurred, but in the effort to make the test something more than matching (the story event to the correlated answer option) some slightly inaccurate permutation of one of the other events will appear as an answer.  In this case, the oddly inaccurate one is the ‘going off the trail’ option, and the correct answer is C.  (I confess, I’ve still not read the passage accompanying these questions, but my 7th grade daughter confirmed these details.)

Interestingly, this question was categorized as ‘comprehension,’ which presumably ranks below ‘analysis’ on the intellectual spectrum.  The question is framed to look like a prediction question but really isn’t.  The student’s ability to comprehend which detail (from the latter half of the answer options) actually happened in the story is really what’s getting tested.  They needn’t predict anything.  This question was the hardest to answer without reading the passage, but many testers (including my daughter) were able to narrow it down to two answers and C was one of them.

Soon, I will post a new set of MSP released items....See if you can get them right.

1 comment:

pradeep said...

Thank You

The given information is very effective
i will keep updated with the same

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