Basketball’s “March Madness” and School’s “Spring Stupidity”

Because the annual NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships are underway, I’d like to draw an analogy between Basketball’s “March Madness and the “Spring Stupidity” of Standardized Testing, which the Biden Administration is bent on enforcing.

Let’s start with what’s likely to be on the tests. This sample problem was offered by the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh to high school math teachers and was designed to help ‘Close the Math Achievement Gap.’

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.   How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Here’s another question, which I found on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 8

These high school math problems require simple numeracy at most.  With enough practice, just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like that–and consequently feel confident of their ability–even though their abilities have neither been stretched nor challenged.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like those is like trying to become an NCAA-level basketball player by shooting free throws all day long.  To excel at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll and—occasionally–practicing free throws.

Come to think of it, basketball and life are similar. Both are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense.  Like life, it can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles and having your teammates’ backs.  Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game.  Even the greatest players miss over half of their shots, and some (Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams.  And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities.  But if school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers?  That mind-numbing and trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life.  And they won’t be prepared for the challenges that await them.

Here’s the sort of realistic problem–taken from an international test–that ought to be given, because it challenges students to think.

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm, which is when the park closes and the gates are locked.

Two 16-year-olds estimate that they can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using their estimated speeds, what is the latest time they can begin their walk so that they can return by 8PM and not be locked in the park for the night?

This is obviously not a multiple-choice question.  To get the correct answer, students have to read carefully and then perform a number of calculations.  Incidentally, the correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but just 9 percent of the US students in that age group.

Ironically, the test results revealed that American students score high in ‘confidence in mathematical ability,’ despite underperforming their peers in most other countries.  Can it be that their misplaced confidence is the direct result spending too much time practicing the mathematical equivalent of shooting free throws?

No decent basketball coach would dream of getting his or her players ready for games by focusing on free throws; in truth, any coach who tried that would be fired in a heartbeat.

And no players with ambition would put up with such a benighted approach to their sport.

But let’s be clear: The misguided decision to proceed with national testing means that students will spend their first months at school practicing mathematical free throws.

In this year of COVID, mandatory standardized testing and the inevitable test-prep that will precede the tests amount to curiosity-killing, talent-destroying educational malpractice.

I urge you to take a break from the NCAA Tournaments and write your Senators and Representatives. Write your State and local school boards. Write the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Let everyone know that America’s children deserve school experiences that will stretch and challenge them, not bore and demean them.

One thought on “Basketball’s “March Madness” and School’s “Spring Stupidity”

  1. Baseball is often treated as a metaphor for life. Basketball may work as well. I don’t remember the SATs too well but there were plenty of more or less routine math questions and fewer of the kind you suggest.



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