Are you smarter than a 5th grader? For some Texas politicians, the answer is no.
When he campaigned for his Houston-area legislative seat last year, Democrat Gene Wu heard so many complaints from parents and teachers about Texas' new standardized test that he took the 5th grade math test himself. It did not go well.
"I was dumbfounded, because actually the first question I did threw me for a loop. I sat there and stared at the prompt and said, 'I have no idea what this is asking. I know this is in English, but these words together make no sense to me,'" said Wu, a client of mine. "I'm an adult. I'm 35 years old. I have a bachelor's, a master's, you know, and a law degree. I have a background in math and science. I should be able to do the 5th grade math and science portion with no problem. And that was not the case."
The first question presented four different collections of bills and coins and asked, "In which amount of money does the digit 4 represent four cents?" My 6th grader solved the problem in less than a minute, and my 4th grader finished shortly thereafter. Wu, however, thought the wording was "very confusing."
The problem, Wu realized, wasn't that the math was too hard. The problem was that the test required using higher-order reasoning and a fluency in English to solve a logical riddle to answer a simple addition problem.
"I'm a professional test taker. I've taken the SAT, the ACT. I took the GRE. I've taken the LSAT. I've taken the bar exam. I've taken almost every standardized test under the sun, and when I did these questions, they had a certain familiarity to them that I couldn't quite pinpoint. I finally figured out one day, this reminds me of the LSAT and the bar exam. Their objection is to stratify the testing population. They're trying to separate out the wheat from the chaff and shove people into a bell curve," said Wu.
The point of standardized tests was supposed to be closing the achievement gap so no child got left behind, not to cull the poor kids in Wu's district from the herd. So as the Texas revolt against standardized testing reached the Texas capitol, Wu emailed several questions taken from the 5th grade math test to his colleagues in the legislature.
"Some of them refused to do it. Some of them gave it a good shot, did it, and said, 'I can see your point,'" said Wu. "Some of them were like, 'Yeah, I did this, no problem.' That's great. So you're smarter than a 5th grader."
The funny thing is that the question about the money and the digit 4 flummoxed many legislators. "You know who actually had the most problems with that question? Lawyers. All of the legal professionals that are in the House came to me and said the first one threw them for a loop. It threw me for a loop, because as lawyers we're verbal people. And so when we looked at that prompt, the lawyers, our brains instantly locked up because we couldn't get past the wording of it," said Wu, who uploaded the questions on his website.
Wu, who is both a lawyer and a politician, wasn't trying to make his colleagues look stupid. Much of what the legislature does accomplishes that already. The legislature is considering whether to end high-stakes testing, and Wu wanted to demonstrate that the tests set up kids to fail.
"The basic point I was trying to attest is that you have questions that are very confusing. You have questions that are purposely designed to say, 'There's a trick in this. Do you get our trick?' Because the thing is even if you know the base information, you may still not know the trick," he said.
Texas is paying Pearson $468 million for this new test. No one is arguing we don't need tests or accountability. But for my money -- and it is -- how about we give my kids tests simple enough for Texas politicians to pass?
Update: Gene Wu's office passed along the answer key. How did you do?