May 26, 2011

Scarcely believable


A Japanese friend asked about the meaning of a sentence in the sample test questions from a Japanese university entrance exam.

a. I had scarcely spoken to him when he was gone.

The meanings of both "scarcely" and "gone" are ambiguous. The literal meaning of the latter is b, which could imply c or d.

b. I had scarcely spoken to him when he was no longer there.
c. I had just started speaking to him when he died.
d. I had rarely spoken to him when he died.

However, "was gone" can also mean "left." Here's an example from Frankenstein (published in 1818):

e. He was scarcely gone, when I hastened to my room to write to you.
f. Soon after he left, I hastened to my room to write to you.

This meaning implies g, though most people would say h:

g. I had scarcely spoken to him when he left.
h. I had just started speaking to him when he had to leave.

That was when my brain blue-screened. What sadist would put such a sentence in a test of English as a second language? Of course, questions like this have nothing to do with testing English competency, and everything to do the ability of the student to rote memorize huge chunks of information and regurgitate them on demand.

Consequently, the more obscure the material the better.

It's crap like this that gives me an dim view of test-heavy educational "improvement" efforts like NCLB. As bad as it is, the fuzzy-wuzzy approach is better. It produces enough performance randomness to compromise the efficacy the cram school approach. Feel-good, right-brain thinking and political correctness turns out to be good for something.

In Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, China) where getting into the college of your choice is based solely on entrance exam scores, students spend more and more time cramming for tests that elite universities make more and more difficult in order to maintain their standard deviation rank on the distribution curve, resulting in mind-boggling overkill.

It also means that these universities don't really have to be good at anything. They just have to be highly selective. It's a chicken and egg dilemma no elite institution can escape. I mean, if Harvard really was such a great educational institution, it could randomly matriculate students regardless of test scores and turn them all into geniuses. Right?

I'm reminded of the Darwinian dance of death between the poisonous dart frog and the liophis snake. Over time, the frog has become more and more toxic and the snake more resistant to the toxins, to the point that a small frog could kill an adult human. Yet the snakes still eat the frogs, even though the physiological effect is the same as going on a weekend bender.

Which pretty much describes the brain of a Japanese high school student who's made it into an top-tier university. They need to spend four years consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol just to wash it out of their systems.

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