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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, June 27, 2003


Blogger recently switched over to a new version of their posting software. Unsurprisingly, this scrambled a few of my settings (changing my time stamps over to Pacific time, etc.). Most annoyingly, it shut down the RSS feed for a few days (it should be back now).

I think I've caught everything, but if you notice things behaving oddly, please let me know.

Posted at 9:47 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Professional Post Hoc Justification

Despite a general lack of interest in the NBA, I watched an hour or so of the NBA Draft last night. This was partly a sort of default time-wasting thing-- nothing better was on-- and partly the symbolic close of another season of televised sports. Once the NBA draft is over, there's no sports worth watching until September, when the NFL starts up again.

I could attempt to do a pick-by-pick breakdown, but, really, what the hell do I know? I've never seen two-thirds of these guys play, as a bunch of them are foreigners, while a good chunk of the remainder are high school kids.

(I will note, however, that the draft demonstrated conclusively that European TV sucks ass. The game footage of the Euopean draftees that they showed looked like it was shot by an epileptic monkey with a palmcorder whose batteries were running down. In the US, footage that bad gets cut from public access cable...)

What really irritated me about the telecast, though, was the way Mike Tirico observed about fifteen times that each of the Final Four teams had a star player drafted in the top eight picks, and that "maybe this shows that the college game wasn't as weak as people said." Or words to that effect.

The college game is the college game. Period. End of sentence. The success or failure of a college basketball game, team, or season has absolutely nothing to do with how many of the players involved go on to play in the NBA. The NBA is a different business, and I hesitate to even say that it's the same sport as college basketball.

One of the teams involved in what may be the best game I ever saw played put exactly zero players into the NBA. I don't remember the Princeton-Georgetown game in 1989 because Alonzo Mourning went on to a distinguished professional career-- I remember it because a team with nobody over 6'6" tied his team in knots so badly that he slugged a player out of frustration (which failed to get noticed, but also failed to take the guy out of the game...).

Two of the other contenders for "best game ever" (NC State over Houston, and Villanova over Georgetown) pitted teams with future NBA stars against teams loaded with future coaches and European league players. Again, these games are memorable because of the guys who never even got a cup of coffee in the NBA, not in spite of them.

Sports pundits babble on every season about how the college game is in trouble because the best players leave early for the NBA, if they even start college in the first place. That's merely a symptom of the real problem, though. The real problem, and what drives the best players to skip out on college, is the sports media's insistence on treating college sports as some sort of farm system for the professional leagues, whose continued existence needs justification on the grounds of producing star professional players.

The only justification college basketball needs is the game itself. Which is a damn sight better than the product the NBA puts on offer.

Posted at 8:56 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Historical Trivia

While on the subject of set-aside Regents exams, I should comment on one tidbit from the New York Times's coverage:

Mr. Mills's predecessor, Thomas Sobol, could recall only one time in the 80-year history of Regents testing that results had been set aside -- and that was when a newspaper published a stolen answer sheet before the test was given.

The test in question was the 1989 Regents Exam in Chemistry, and the paper in question was the New York Post. I didn't have to Google for that information, because I was one of the 80,000 students scheduled to take the test that June.

That was one of the most surreal phone conversations I've ever had in my life-- the most surreal, to that point. One of my classmates was among the people designated by the school to call other students and tell them not to bother coming in for the test, and I didn't believe her. I had weird paranoid flashes that she was just trying to set me up to fail the test, so she could get the highest grade in the class, so I went down to the school anyway (all of half a mile away), and sure enough, the test was canceled.

Then I got to have the same conversation a second time, telling my mother that the test had been called off.

The whole thing was a little silly, actually-- it's not like anybody in Scenic Whitney Point actually reads the Post (this was before the Web, remember). I didn't even manage to get a copy for a souvenir. If you're going to cancel the test for kids in The City, though, you have to cancel it for hicks as well.

The shame of it is, the Chemistry Regents was one of the most pathetically easy tests they gave-- all multiple choice, with a nearly foolproof algorithm for finding the answer mechanically-- and I was looking forward to acing it. I had also pointed out the mechanical algorithm to a couple of students in the class, and wanted to see how they'd end up doing... Ah, well, such is life...

Posted at 10:03 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Who Tests the Testers?

It's been a bad year for the New York Board of Regents. First, they get nailed for bowdlerizing reading comp passages on the English exam, then people get torqued off by the high physics failure rate, and now, a revised math exam has been thrown out after it produced failure rates of seventy percent or more. Early reports suggest that the Physics exam will turn out to be awful as well.

Predictably enough, this has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth among parents, principals, and the writers of weepy pieces in the Times. I'm less certain that this is an Extremely Bad Thing, but it certainly raises interesting issues for the "objective standards" theory of education reform.

(The headline of the Times piece asks the rhetorical question "A 70 Percent Failure Rate?" and cites that figure incredulously a couple of times in the body of the article, as if it's simply inconceivable that seventy percent of test-takers could ever fail a math exam. It's difficult not to answer that question by snarkily remarking that it's actually pretty easy to believe, based on the math skills on display in some of our intro classes. So difficult, in fact, that I won't bother.)

This whole mess shows up one of the big problems with the standardized-test school of education reform, which is founded on the belief that if we just make students take comprehensive tests at the end of the year, they'll be forced to learn all sorts of things that they haven't been learning in the past. The biggest flaw in this theory is that it neglects the possibility of "teaching to the test," but following close behind is the fallacy that our educational shortcomings are all the fault of lazy or incompetent teachers.

Proponents of educational reform, of whatever political stripe, make a great deal of the fact that students graduate and are given diplomas without achieving anything like an acceptable level of competence in their subject matter. "How can this happen?" they moan, and those on the Right go on to blame feather-bedding by corrupt teacher's unions, and the like, while those on the far Left blame some sort of hyphenated-centrism in the educational system. This neglects the crucial role the students, and more importantly, the parents of students play in the process. The answer to "How can this happen?" is "Because students and parents want it that way."

In the abstract, everybody is in favor of setting high standards for students, in the same way that everybody believes that their own children are above average. The plain fact, though, is that when you set high standards, some people will fail. That's what makes them high standards

The problem is, students become unhappy when they fail. And their parents become extremely unhappy when they find out that little Johnny isn't actually exceptional. And principals and educators become exceptionally unhappy when dozens of angry parents parade into their offices denouncing the tests as "unfair." It eventually becomes easier to just water down the tests, or even set them aside, than it is to stand up to the barrage of criticism that comes from trying to hold the line on standards. That's what got us into this mess in the first place, and it's foolish in the extreme to think that simply adding more tests to the graduation requirements will magically undo the damage of years of parental lobbying. (See also some Late Night Thoughts on a related subject...)

That said, a seventy percent failure rate is on the high side. It's not unrealistic, perhaps (math is, after all, hard), but if you're going to make a test, you should make some effort toward tailoring it to the students. It's easy to write a test that most people will fail, after all, but that doesn't really give you any useful information about where to direct efforts to improve things for subsequent classes. Even if you have high goals for the class standards down the road, you ought to phase these things in over a couple of years-- a well-designed test not only tells you about whether the students are up to snuff, but also gives you information about specific areas of the curriculum that need improvement.

On some level, though, I would like to see the Regents stick to their guns on this one. The recent decision is sort of a mixed bag-- the failing scores of seniors who needed the class to graduate were set aside, but the scores stand for sophomores and juniors. I'd like to see them say "Yep. Seventy percent failure. Do try harder next year, won't you?" and give the same test again next year. Then take the phone off the hook, and lock the office door. If these tests act as a wake-up call, and lead to improved acience and math education down the road, then it'll all be worth it.

Unfortunately, my cynical side tells me they're more likely to lead to a new State Education Commissioner, and easier tests in the future.

Posted at 9:16 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

A Little Light Reading

While general-interest blogging remains light, I should note that I've read a bunch of stuff recently, and have posted several new entries over at The Library of Babel. If you're dying to know what I had to say about the new Harry Potter, check it out...

Posted at 9:54 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, June 23, 2003

I Know How Old I Am, But Have No Idea Where I'm Going

I would be in violation of the blogging ethos (that "shrine to the ego" thing again...) if I failed to note that this weblog was started one year ago yesterday.

I wish I had some really clever comment to make to sum up a year's worth of posts, but I've been insanely busy and sleep-deprived the past week or so, so my brain has turned to mush. I'm half tempted to formally announce a posting hiatus, but that traditionally leads to a dramatic increase in posting volume, and I can't spare the time right now.

I will note the amusing fact that two of the three links in that inaugural post are now defunct (my book log has moved, and Lagniappe is now In the Pipeline), while I no longer read the third linked site at all. Weblogging may yet turn out to be a revolutionary phenomenon, but it's certainly not a well-archived one...

Posted at 7:47 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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