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The Modern-Day Math Test, or, How I Became a Curmudgeon

(Or, Wherein the Author Learns Who Subscribes to the RSS Feed.)

The other day, against my better judgement, I took on some contract textbook writing work with a company based in India. The main reason, I confess, is so that I can tell my friends that India is outsourcing work to me, something that I’ll also be sure to mention on my résumé when I inevitably overstay my welcome at my current place of employment. The bad news is that the textbook company produces books for use in the United States, which means that I get paid in American dollars, not rupees. Alas.

But here’s the general procedure: someone from an American school board sends specs to the Indian company, which hires an American to write an outline for a text, which then gets sent to a Canadian (me) to turn into multiple choice questions. India the goes over the questions, and sends them to someone else (an American?) to review and revise. This seems to me like an awful lot of trouble to go to to produce (what appears to me to be) a text that is essentially indistinguishable from every other text in use in the public school system, but I don’t make the rules: I just get paid to follow them.

Fortunately, the Indian textbook company is not in any way affiliated with the body that produces and markets fucking graphing calculators. However, no company that mass-produces textbooks for use American public schools can remain solvent without permitting the use of some sort of scientific calculator at the high school level, which makes questions such as

5. Which of the following is equivalent to sqrt(50)-sqrt(8)?
a. …
b. …
c. …
d. …

several orders of magnitude stupider than their non-multiple choice equivalents.

You see the problem.

Calculator use aside: in coming up with the incorrect multiple-choice options, I am finding myself borrowing liberally from some of my earlier work in the field. Needless to say, I’m milking the “everything is linear” fallacy, which features prominently in every single option set I’ve written so far, for all it’s worth. So far, India seems happy with my work, which can only mean that India is confident that, for example, hoardes of students will continue incorrectly expanding polynomials in exactly the same way that teachers have warned students against incorrectly expanding polynomials since time immemorial.

Good instruction has minimal effect on the frequency of the most common types of algebra errors, I’ve found, so I don’t have to worry that there will be a classroom of students who overlook Option D en masse because duheveryone knows that (x+y)^2 does not equal x^2+y^2.

No, I’ve done good work with this text, so far. My employers assure me that my questions will be sufficiently confounding to high school students, of whom negligibly few are even adept enough at plugging expressions into their calculators to compare multiple choice options to an unsimplified expression that it’s well worth asking several questions that can be solved that way; and of whom hardly any understand enough algebra to avoid half of the wrong choices I’ve provided.

A skilled teacher is one who acts as a positive influence on her students, and manages to inspire them. Lofty goals, those, and ones that are seldom attained. It’s far easier – and potentially more lucrative – to be a skilled multiple-choice math question writer, whose success is commensurate with the ability to correctly predict her subjects’ deficiencies, which are never in short supply.

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