Our JLF Director of Research and K-12 Education Studies Terry Stoops called my attention to the following question from the North Carolina state biology exam put together by the Department of Public Instruction. This seems to be a sample question to be used for practice purposes. They call this, and other questions a “released test form.” DPI states that:
Released test forms may be used by school systems to help acquaint students with valuable test taking strategies in summative assessment situations. These strategies may include managing time, following directions, understanding reading selections, and thinking through how to select the correct answer. Released test forms may be used by parents and the general public in gaining a greater understanding of how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and Mathematics and the Essential Standards for Science are measured.
The question is clearly regarded as being representative of the kinds of questions that can be expected on the exam.
The biology question reads:
Which environmental concern is most associated with burning fossil fuels?
A global climate change
B pollution of ocean waters
C ozone layer destruction
D decrease in levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide
In case you didn’t guess, the “correct” answer is A.
From the perspective of science this question is nebulous at best and could be regarded as completely meaningless. First, there is no indication of what is meant by “associated with.” Does it mean statistically correlated with? Does it mean rhetorically associated with? And by whom? Climatologists? Biologists (after all it is a biology exam)? The media? Their teachers?
And then there’s the answer “global climate change.” Do they mean global warming? Climate change in general is certainly not statistically associated with burning fossil fuels. The climate has always changed and always will regardless of fossil fuel use. There have always been ice ages and warming periods. So I would hope that DPI is not suggesting that the climate changes because we burn fossil fuels. That’s not just wrong, but silly. On the other hand, if the test writers at DPI meant global warming, why didn’t they say so? But even then it is not at all clear that, if they were referring to statistical correlation, even global warming would be correct. As noted, there have been plenty of warming periods that have occurred well before the burning of fossil fuels, most recently the medieval warming period.
So the question arises, why would DPI include such a nonsensical question on its biology exam? Well, there are two possible answers. Either the question writers are ignorant and they do not understand the problems with the question, or they are not ignorant and they do. You can judge which is worse.