The wrong kind of literacy.

I’ve noticed a bit of troubling trend in the NYS ELA exams over the past year. Let’s see if you can spot the issues:

The ice of Antarctica appears blue because of the (1) shape of the icebergs (2) angle of the sunlight (3) presence of minerals in the ice (4) absence of oxygen in the ice

The correct answer to the question, is indicated to be choice 4. Provided for the reader is a representation of a water molecule:


Do you see the issue? The fact that one-third of all atoms in a sample of water (in any phase) are oxygen atoms is not up for interpretation by sloppy writers.

Admittedly, the above complaint is slightly pedantic, in a science-teacher sort of way. Here is the relevant part of the listening comprehension passage that the question is based on:

There is a type of ice all over Antarctica called blue ice. Blue ice is formed at the very deepest layers of icebergs and glaciers when, over millions of years, the oxygen within the ice is forced out by the weight of the material on top. In small chunks this incredibly dense ice is perfectly clear—so clear that once you see it, you realize that you’ve never seen clear ice before—and in large chunks it absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum and appears to glow blue, as if from some inner source of illumination.

Obviously, the author is committing the conflation of miniscule air bubbles (the actual reason why white ice looks white) with “oxygen”. There is no major harm to a student's ability to reason being done here. Still, the “correct answer” to the question is plainly wrong, and betrays a rather unfortunate lack of scientific critical thinking on the part of the item writers, and the NYSED team that approved the question. At the very least, a different question could be asked to get at the same skill, one that didn’t rely on an inaccurate premise. But maybe I’m just being nit-picky here. If this were the only instance of this type of thing, I wouldn’t be writing this article….

Now we’re moving well away from a “harmless” lapse in rigorous term usage. Students need to provide evidence that supports the existence of a cryptozoological urban legend? Perhaps we should have them write arguments in favor of the Miasma theory of disease next.

Both of these examples are illustrative of what I would suggest is a really unfortunate interpretation of Common Core ELA shift #4: “Text Based Answers”. Apparently, if it’s in the text, it is now sacrosanct, regardless of its bearing on actual, observable, reality. As a scientist, I'm saddened to see such dogmatic insistence on text. Science is a subject that deals with evidence outside of authority. Treating text as an authority above questioning is exactly the opposite of how the process that powers every aspect of the modern world works. On another level, this type of training to blindly adhere to the text is exactly contrary to what I want my own students to be doing in my classes. It reinforces the notion that there are authorities who have opinions and perspectives that are more valid than those of others, even when they aren’t, by no other virtue than their authority. It’s ugly, and it’s also a major logical fallacy. We shouldn’t be assessing the ability of our students to labor under text-based delusions.

I hope that NYSED, and whoever they are paying to write items re-examines this anti-science trend in the recent ELA assessments. Do we want to produce students who are capable of critical thought, and inquisitive questioning, or are we shooting for automaton-like deference to text? I certainly prefer one of these over the other, and I would like to think that the decision-makers in NYSED feel similarly.