Interpretive Standards

In a stack of papers called Testing.

  • Feb
  • 08
  • 2007

If standards are there to improve the level of education delivered and to act as a kind of teacher report card once we measure student ability to perform those standards, those standards better be exact and not open to interpretation. Good for objective classes, terrible for subjective ones.

Writing Strategies, standard 1.9 says

Revise text to highlight the individual voice, improve sentence variety and style, and enhance subtlety of meaning and tone in ways that are consistent with the purpose, audience, and genre.

“and” Vs. “then he”

Sounds like a fairly straightforward request that our students be able to go back and improve their writing, keeping in mind who they are writing for and the style in which they are writing. The entire reading selection’s a bit long (download a PDF of it), so here’s the released STAR question that “assesses” student ability to perform this standard:

Which of the following is the best way to combine sentences 2 and 3?

  1. William Herschel moved from Germany to England in 1757, then he became an organist at a chapel in Bath in 1766.
  2. When William Herschel moved from Germany to England in 1757, he became an organist at a chapel in Bath in 1766.
  3. William Herschel moved from Germany to England in 1757 and became an organist at a chapel in Bath in 1766.
  4. Since William Herschel moved from Germany to England in 1757, he became an organist at a chapel in Bath in 1766.

According to the answer key, the correct answer is C. I disagree and cast my vote for A. The addition of “then he” is just a touch more sophisticated than the simplistic dropping of “and” in between the two phrases. But in the end, I hate that any of my kids or my teaching is measured based on questions like this one. Who cares? Both answers are fine; quibbling over “and” or “then he” doesn’t do anyone any good and doesn’t measure anything worth measuring.

That this kind of splitting hairs is what the STAR evaluates makes me want to turn my back on the whole thing, both the test and our state’s standards. That is a ridiculous question and there are several more like it, questions that “assess” meaningless minutiae open to interpretation.

Just the fact that the question contains the phrase “Which of the following is the best way” suggests a degree of subjectivity that everyone should be uncomfortable with having on such a high-stakes test as STAR. “Which one is the best?” Doesn’t that sound like an opinion to you? How can you judge a student whose opinion doesn’t match yours, oh mighty state test?


1. mrc says:

[2/11/2007 - 12:33 pm]

Wait a minute! Sentence A is not grammatically correct. This is part of what the STAR is testing, and I think it’s valid.

The sentence A is a run-on of the “comma splice” variety, wherein two independent clauses are held together by a comma. Separate the clauses, and you will see that each stands on its own. To join the two sentences, we need an “and” or some other coordinating conjunction. The word “then” is a conjunction, I think, but functions as an adverbial rather than a coordinating conjunction when used correctly. I’m a math teacher, so I’m not 100% sure if this is the right terminology. And this may not be a hard-and-fast rule, but it seems like students should at least be aware of it.

Personally, I would go for “William Herschel moved from Germany to England in 1757 and then in 1766 became an organist at a chapel in Bath.” But since that isn’t one of the possible answers, I feel that the choice of C is clearly better than the grammatically-incorrect A or the slight changes in meaning brought about by B and D.

2. Todd says:

[2/11/2007 - 6:13 pm]

mrc visited the blog, then he left a comment.

Do you have a problem with that sentence? I don’t. Would you mark that wrong on a student’s paper? I wouldn’t. Would you fire an employee who wrote that sentence? I wouldn’t.

“You’ll come to a blue gate, then you’ll have to press the intercom button.” “I’ll deliver the management system, then I’ll work on creating the interface.” First he did this, then he did that. That’s how I’d write it.

First he did this. Then he did that. Sure, that’s fine, too. This isn’t worth the time or energy of STAR to assess.

This is akin to calling a color “white” and getting it wrong because the color is really “ice.” I’d be pissed off if that question kept me out of “proficient.” Even more pissed off if that question meant ineligibility for AP classes (if a school uses STAR scores for AP eligibility).

Good job with the grammatical terms, mrc. You’re right on, but A is acceptable and regularly seen (which lends credibility to it being grammatically correct since grammar regularly changes according to popular whim – latest examples include the acceptance of split infinitives and the willingness to end a sentence with a preposition; if STAR ever moves to test those, I’m done with it).

P.S. Thinking about this more, it seems a more correct grammatical structure when you shorten the clauses: I wept, then I laughed. Compare that to: I wept because I left my backpack in the locker room at school, then I laughed because I realized I was standing right next to the locker room door. Hrm — I still think they are both just fine. A friend of mine is a grammar stud, so I’ll ask him about this tomorrow. I think the fact that I’m fuzzy here (not that I’m on top of grammar theory, but I pay an awful lot of attention to such things) implies that it’s not absolutely essential students understand this particular distinction. I’m by no means the be all end all of grammar questions, I’m just saying…

3. Todd says:

[2/12/2007 - 10:57 pm]

Yeah, “then” is certainly an adverb and not a coordinating conjunction. Looking in a few more books and asking more people, you are absolutely right, mrc. Much to my chagrin, I’ll admit that C is the correct answer and I already talked to the kids about it. However, everyone I asked said the same thing I did, that they wouldn’t mark it wrong and they’ve seen it plenty of times in published work.

My larger point in all this, though: Do tests like STAR ensure that teachers prepare kids for life or for more school? Where’s the meaning in all this? Is English/Language Arts full of fixed standards that have definite correct and incorrect answers? How do we deal with subjects that are more full of shades of gray than stark black and white? That’s why I have a hard time with STAR (despite the fact that I’m a big force behind any kind of excitement about the test on my campus).