Wednesday, June 22, 2005

This is only a test

The physics Regents exam was today. I don't know what the students thought, but from the teacher perspective, that was relatively painless! Unlike recent years, there were no "bad questions", i.e. ambiguous questions where a student could have legitimately understood the question in a way different from the "correct" way and gotten another answer. And no culturally biased questions like the recent one asking about the nozzle on the garden hose (which is just swell for upstate kids with backyards, but provides no point of reference for kids who have lived in apartments their whole lives).

Most importantly, as we prepare to grade 700 of these puppies, the free-response section included, in addition to the usual numerical answers, plenty of drawing -- drawing force vectors, drawing transverse waves, drawing trajectories, plotting points and drawing a best-fit line. Fine. But there were no questions saying "Design a procedure..." or "Explain why...". Baruch hashem!!! Sure, students should know how to explain concepts, and how to design scientific experiments (rather than following cookbook lab instructions). But those questions take forever to grade! Even if it takes only 20 seconds to grade each one, 20 seconds * 700 students = a long time. Each of the questions that made the cut should take no longer than 2 seconds each. The Regents were merciful this year.

While I was proctoring in the hallway, I was taking the exam (for fun and edification) at the same time the students were. I would answer one of the typical tricky questions that are easy if you see past the trick, then preemptively get mad at my students, thinking "How could you get that wrong?!" Is this a typical teacher syndrome? I hope that my first impulses were wrong and all my students get 100.

The "modern physics" was superficial as usual. "The tau neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the electron neutrino are all (1) leptons (2) hadrons (3) baryons (4) mesons." And then you look over at the Reference Table provided with the exam, and see the chart of the Standard Model, which has a section labeled "leptons", which includes, you guessed it, the tau neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the electron neutrino. I think a 3rd grader could have answered this one (if provided with the chart). My students might actually have missed "How much energy, in megaelectronvolts, is produced when 0.250 universal mass unit of matter is completely converted into energy?". It's not such a hard question (E = mc^2), and it's even easier if you look at the line on the Reference Table that says 1 u = 931 MeV (so you don't have to convert any units), but we didn't talk about universal mass units in class (I hadn't even heard that term before - I thought it was atomic mass units). Next year I'll have to make sure to spend a minute or two on that. Let's hope they remember amu from chemistry and/or glance at that line on the front of the Reference Table.

Overall it was a fair test; I have no cause for outrage. Tomorrow at the crack of dawn we get to slooooooowly find out how the students did. I'm rooting for all 100s!

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