State’s Newest School Tests May Be Out of the Question


California schools are about to replace multiple-choice questions with “performance-based” testing that forces students to think and to explain their answers.

A story in the paper the other day gave a few test questions, and I can’t say that I did very well on them. They are for fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 10-graders.

It seems to me that some of the questions are inadequately stated. For example:

“‘The cycle for the traffic light on Main Street is green for 55 seconds, yellow for 5 seconds, and red for 30 seconds. What is the probability of having to stop at the traffic light?”


I figure that 8.6 out of 10 drivers do not stop for yellow lights; 4.3 do not stop for red lights if they have been on for less than 5 seconds. The thing to do is not try to calculate the probabilities but to stay the hell out of the intersection until all the nuts have stopped running the red light.

Here’s one for fourth-graders:

“A visitor from outer space has just arrived. It is confused about our number system. It asks you: ‘Is 5 plus 29 equal to 529?’ ”

What kind of question is that? Any 9-year-old kid knows that we have had no visitors from outer space. That’s a myth concocted by the UFO nuts. It is ill- conceived because it might give children the impression that we actually do have visitors from outer space. If we did have such a visitor he would obviously be far advanced technologically over us, and would certainly know that 5 plus 29 does not make 529.

And here’s a crazy one:

A family of six ordered 13 hot dogs. Nine had mustard, 3 had ketchup, 8 had relish, 4 had both mustard and relish, and 3 had mustard, ketchup and relish. Explain to the clerk how many hot dogs had no relish or ketchup. You may use drawings in your explanation.”

Can you imagine the clerk trying to sort out that order? No way. He’d say, “Look, you guys. Just take your dogs over to the counter there and get your own mustard.” (Besides, it doesn’t say anything about chopped onions. I myself like chopped onions on my hot dogs, especially when the Dodgers are losing.)

Here’s one about math, which is not my strong suit.

“Bob says that an increase from 10 to 40 is a 300% increase, and therefore a decrease from 40 to 10 must be a 300% decrease. Do you agree with Bob? Explain your reasoning.”


I asked my wife to figure it out. She’s better at math than I am. She said a decrease from 40 to 10 was a 75% decrease. I don’t know how she figured it out. I would have said that Bob was right.

Here’s one on history:

“China, unlike Japan, was eventually dominated by the European imperialist powers. There were many reasons for this. Select two items from the list below and explain how they contributed to the failure of China to resist the West.

“1. Chinese world view.

“2. Taiping Rebellion (1851-1854) or Boxer Rebellion (1890s).

“3. Confucian scholar-gentry class.

“4. European technology.”

The answer is none of the above. The reason that the Chinese were unable to resist the European powers is that the Europeans bought so much tea from China that they soon became indispensable to the Chinese economy. That trade gave rise to the saying, “I wouldn’t marry you for all the tea in China.”

One of the questions asks sixth-graders to make an electrical circuit. That scares me. Even at my age I don’t fool with electricity except to ring the doorbell and turn on the lights and TV. I always thought Ben Franklin was crazy to try to get electricity out of lightning through a kite.

It’s not that I favor multiple choice. Any fool can guess the answer to this question, for example:

“Which of these three beverages is most likely to harm you? milk, gin, vodka.” The answer is obviously milk, because it contains cholesterol and other harmful ingredients.


There is no end of the possibilities for performance-based questions.

For example, wouldn’t it be timely to ask, “Which of the following do you think has the best family values? Hillary Clinton, Tanya Tucker, Marilyn Quayle, Mia Farrow.”

Don’t forget that Clinton would allow children to sue their parents; Tanya Tucker has two children out of wedlock; Marilyn Quayle would insist that if her 13-year-old daughter turned up pregnant she make her bear the child, and Farrow has a child out of wedlock by Woody Allen.

Explain your answer.