Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's in a Name?

“Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Henry or George or Robert or John or lots of other things? You'd have to say Robert plus John equals four, and if the four's name were Albert, things would be hopeless.”

- Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

When I subbed Math today, one group of middle-school students needed to take a Superintendent Assessment, which occurs about three times a year, to check the district’s preparedness for the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). MCAS tests proficiency in Math, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts. It’s my state’s way of fulfilling No Child Left Behind requirements. I was proctoring the seventh-grade Math assessment.

In the morning, another Math teacher told me that there was a new section, which I’ve copied for you below:

When recording understanding of each question, use the following


1 = “I don’t know” or I guessed.”

2 = I’m not sure but I tried.”

3 = “I understand” or “I got the answer.”

It’s now not enough for students to show their work to see if they understood each question, but to see how they felt about it. Understanding their understanding seems more philosophical than mathematical.

Another new development was the people’s names used on the questions, which were more reflective of the city’s diverse population. Though I now wondered if the actual MCAS made the same effort. These were all the names given on the test:


The most popular name the year I was born. Pretty typical.


Is that from India? Or is it a Muslim name? It sounds like the kinds of names I stumble on during attendance. Kids hate when I mispronounce their names, but guess how many mangle Milstein, and I let them off the hook by telling them they can call me Ms. M.? On the flipside, once a tough middle-school student befriended me because, according to him, I was the only person to ever say his name correctly on the first try.

"Taheisha", "Rodell", and "Kiana"

The question was about three siblings, and it had something to do with their ages. I see these kinds of names on attendance lists, but I think I’d ace these pronunciations, except for maybe the last one. Kiy-ahna or Key-ahna?

Will having students rate their understanding help somehow? Will having questions with names that more students can relate to make the test more accessible, and therefore, help students perform better? Beats me. Just because I’m subbing a Math class, doesn’t make me a Math teacher.

“Names are an important key to what a society values. Anthropologists recognize naming as 'one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.' “ - David S. Slawson


  1. I'd imagine that have statistical information about the student's understanding of the question could be used to gauge the questions.
    For example, if 90% of the students taking the test failed to understand one question, but they all understood the others, perhaps the questions is poorly formulated? Perhaps the question is too hard?

    Just an offhand guess/example at what that kind of information can be used for.

  2. @ Alesa, I think you're right. Trying to figure out what's going on in the students' minds with each question may help them design better tests or help them teach the material better or even how to decipher a question. It's all about teaching to the test.