Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Considering the HiSET, or for heaven’s sake get your kids reading

So, I’ve been looking over practice tests for the HiSET test, which last year replaced the GED in Missouri. Not infrequently we work with students who have entered college after taking these tests; sometimes our tutors work with students who are preparing to take these tests. The HiSET is supposed to be aligned with Common Core standards and thus it is supposed to reflect the High! Standards! Missouri students are supposed to meet if they graduate from high school.

Well, here’s my initial impression:

Math: The math is extremely simple grade school math with almost no algebra. However, the questions draw heavily on theory rather than practice. Here is a sample question:

It is estimated that construction of this pool area (pictured) will cost $75,000. A large corporation donated $35,000. An additional $2000 was earned during a local fund-raising activity. If 20 local businesses agree to donate the rest of the money, which of the following represents the average amount each business will have to contribute?

The correct answer is not the ANSWER, but this:

d) ($75,000 – $37,000) / 20

This is typical of how the answers are structured. The student is being tested on what ought to be done, rather than on doing it. That’s interesting. I have no opinion yet about whether I think this is a good idea.

Writing: There some of those typical Correct This Phrase questions, and then, I am relieved to see, an actual writing assignment. AM I EVER GLAD I AM NOT SCORING THOSE. I can’t even imagine reading a billion or so student essays on, let’s take a look at the writing prompt, here we go: Write an article for your employer’s newsletter that argues that workers should adopt at least one behavior that will improve their fitness. Wonderful, we get a lot of preachy student essays to read. Who came up with that prompt? Ugh.

Reading: Here’s what actually caught my eye. The reading passages are, in my opinion, highly demanding and would be quite difficult for students who were poor readers OR students who had not spent a lot of time reading fiction. Look at this passage from Conrad’s TYPHOON:

Jukes was as ready a man as any half-dozen young mates that may be caught by casting a net upon the waters; and though he had been somewhat taken aback by the startling viciousness of the first squall, he had pulled himself together on the instant, had called out the hands, and had rushed them along to secure such openings about the deck as had not been already battened down earlier in the evening. Shouting in his fresh, stentorian voice, “Jump, boys, and bear a hand!” he led in the work, telling himself the while that he had “just expected this.”

But at the same time he was growing aware that this was rather more than he had expected. From the first stir of the air felt on his cheek the gale seemed to take upon itself the accumulated impetus of an avalanche. Heavy sprays enveloped the Nan-Shan from stem to stern, and instantly in the midst of her regular rolling she began to jerk and plunge as though she had gone mad with fright.

Jukes thought, “This is no joke.” While he was exchanging explanatory yells with his captain, a sudden lowering of the darkness came upon the night, falling before their vision like something palpable. It was as if the masked lights of the world had been turned down. Jukes was uncritically glad to have his captain at hand. It relieved him as though that man had, by simply coming on deck, taken most of the gale’s weight upon his shoulders. Such is the prestige, the privilege, and the burden of command.

Captain MacWhirr could expect no relief of that sort from anyone on earth. Such is the loneliness of command. He was trying to see, with that watchful manner of a seaman who stares into the wind’s eye as if into the eye of an adversary, to penetrate the hidden intention and guess the aim and force of the thrust. The strong wind swept at him out of a vast obscurity; he felt under his feet the uneasiness of his ship, and he could not even discern the shadow of her shape. He wished it were not so; and very still he waited …

You see what I mean? Two words are defined for the student: stentorian and palpable. But look at the whole passage! This would be quite easy to read and understand if you had already read and enjoyed, say, some of the Horatio Hornblower novels. But if you have stuck mainly to nonfiction, or worse, have not ever read anything much for fun, my goodness.

Also, is it really fair to present the students with a passage that puts semicolons before conjunctions right before they take the grammar part of the test? I would also expect English teachers to ask for a couple more commas than Conrad used.

But my main takeaway here is: students are going to be at quite a disadvantage if they walk into this test without having grown up reading fiction. Given articles like this one on the plunging popularity of reading unassigned books for fun, that could be a significant consideration. Not that I made any effort to assess the linked article for validity; I just figured there would be articles like that out there and linked the first one I found; but if about half of all kids today never or very rarely read for fun, well.

Not that this is relevant to any of you. I’m quite sure that those of you who are reading this and have children have houses filled with fiction.

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4 Comments Considering the HiSET, or for heaven’s sake get your kids reading

  1. SarahZ

    As a mathy person myself, I never understood why they dumbed down the math in these tests so much. Sure, have some easy questions, but also have at least a few that are more advanced. I mean, if that passage represents the level you’re holding people to in the reading section, then this seems like verbal skills are being very heavily emphasized over anything but basic math skills.

  2. Rachel

    Well, SarahZ, you hit a button. Here comes a rant:

    My cynical but imo plausible explanation is that since we are on about the 4th generation of elementary school teachers who suffer from math phobias and have zero math skills themselves, math education has been so bad for so long in the lower grades that there is no hope of teaching algebra to the greater part of students in high school. Standards have then been developed by administrators and politicians who also hate math, with the standards written on the basis of having given up.

    Actually, it’s way worse than not teaching algebra in high school. The fact is, if student arrived in college able to handle the basic math required on the HiSet, we would not have a problem. Because if you get grade school math, you can learn algebra, and it’s perfectly all right to learn it in college rather than beforehand. But students graduate from high school knowing nothing whatsoever about math. Then they fail Elementary Algebra three times because they absolutely go to pieces at the sight of a fraction. Only when they finally let us teach them how to handle fractions do they pass algebra. Not all students are in this situation, of course, but far, far, far too many.

    Check this out and you will see that American students are commonly taught SO badly that they often have truly fundamental misconceptions at the base of everything they do in math. This could not happen if grade school teachers understood anything about math at all. And by “teachers” I mean “too many teachers,” not “all teachers everywhere,” so if anybody out there is a teacher and this shoe doesn’t fit you or your colleagues, don’t wear it. But I know personally what happens when teachers hand students calculators in the second grade and explain that the equals sign is the do-it-now button, rather than a sign that means two quantities are the same. I see students with zero math knowledge ALL THE TIME.

    We have had tutors that were math majors and went on to teach math at elementary or high schools, and THEY will not be contributing to these problems. But it’s like adding a drop of ink to a bucket of milk: the problem is pervasive and the number of competent math teachers is not large enough to change the dire situation we’ve gotten into. Many of the education majors I see hate math, are afraid of math, and have no intrinsic sense about math at all. I mean, at all. Then they start teaching and the disconnect between what is taught in lower grades and what is necessary in college gets wider.

    I see that Britain is now importing teachers from Singapore to teach kids math. If even a tenth of British teachers could learn to teach math that way, I’m sure Britain would not need to import teachers. I would not bet on that happening this generation. Perhaps some of the kids taught by the teachers from Singapore will go on to become math teachers themselves, ignore everything they are told about teaching math in education classes, and finally contribute enough drops of ink to start swirling visibly through the milk.

    And in the meantime, if I had kids instead of dogs, I would homeschool.

  3. Sarah Schmidt

    our impression, and that of multiple teachers we have talked to, is that the math test is very difficult, but the students only need to get about 15 (out of 50). If you look at the breakdown on the HiSET website, it indicates about 35+ percent algebra. I am not sure why there is this discrepancy in our perceptions.

  4. Rachel

    That’s interesting; a math test you are designed to fail but then that is called passing. Or is a 30% considered adequate in some other context?

    And I don’t know; I didn’t get to look at a full test; just a handful of sample questions. Perhaps those drew more heavily on pre-algebra topics.

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