The "Volcanoes: Harmful or Helpful?" Reading Prompt

by Tim Horrigan, former Measured Progress test scorer

(August 2005)

Measured Progress's reading prompts almost always deal with an issue which (ostensibly) has exactly two sides. Sometimes the student is expected to choose one side to defend, but more often (as in this case) she is expected to explain both. This particular prompt is from the Montana 4th Grade MontCAS test:

After reading an article about volcanoes, the student is expected to answer the following (ultimately unanswerable) question:

"Explain how a volcano can be helpful AND harmful. Use information from the article to support your answer."

After a page or two of (pardon the pun) boilerplate about how volcanoes are formed, about how most volcanoes form within a "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean, about how scientists are "are always at work predicting when the next volcano might erupt," etc., etc. the article blatantly gives away the answer:

Harmful or Helpful?

Volcanoes can be harmful. Hot gases and lava hurt living things. They can destroy crops and wipe out homes and towns. Temperatures can drop when clouds of ash block out the sun for days at a time. Daytime can seem like night. When this happens, more crops die. Sometimes, people have to leave their homes because of the ash in the air. This ash makes it hard for people and animals to breathe.

Volcanoes can also be helpful. Farmers use soil that comes from volcanoes. Dried lava holds useful minerals that help plants grow. Lava is also used to make soap. Volcanic rocks are used as building materials, since they are easy to find and easy to work with. Gold, silver, and diamonds have also been found in and around old volcanoes. Hot water and steam from volcanoes can be used to make electricity and to grow food in greenhouses. Many people will visit an area to watch a volcano spill lava or let out steam. A volcano can be a beautiful sight when seen from a distance.

The students are graded according to how completely they regurgitate BOTH of the above paragraphs. The rubric is as follows:

4: Response thoroughly explains how a volcano can be helpful AND harmful. Explanation is well supported with relevant information from the article.

3: Response explains how a volcano can be helpful AND harmful, but lacks some development and/ or supporting information from the article.

2: Response explains how a volcano can be helpful AND harmful. Response is limited, uses weak support from the article, and may contain some misunderstandings or be unclear.
OR Response explains how a volcano can be helpful OR harmful. Explanation uses information from the article as support.

1: Response provides a vague or minimal attempt to answer the question.

0: Response is totally incorrect or irrelevant.

Blank: No response.

One of the "anchor" 4s makes what might seem to be an incorrect reference to "dried lava." (This also turns up in an anchor 3.) This was inspired by a statement in the article to the effect that "Dried lava can add new land around a volcano." (This statement would be like saying that "Ice is dried water which forms on top of ponds in the winter.") I assume the test developer didn't want to use the correct adjective "solidified" because that word has too many syllables for a 4th grader. "Dried," even though it doesn't exactly make sense in this context, has only one syllable and hence is considered easier to read. (And, in all fairness, adults do use the term "dried lava" sometimes in real life .)

The anchor 4s pretty much cover every point in the original article. Note that it is OK to do "harmful" first and then "helpful" (as in the article) instead of "helpful" followed by "harmful" (as specified in the actual question.)

An anchor 4:

Another anchor 4:

The Anchor 3's are just not as complete or as coherent as the 4's:

An anchor 3:

Another anchor 3:

The anchor 2s show two ways a child can fall short of the standard needed to reach the 3 or 4 score points. The first student gives part of the desired answer, but just doesn't flesh it out enough. But the second student evidently gets marked down from a 3 for using a correct and insightfully used piece of data which is not found in the section about why volcanoes are harmful and helpful. She also gets marked down for including a paradox in her essay when she is only in 4th grade. Paradoxes are not introduced into the curriculum before middle school at the earliest; 4th graders are expected to take everything at face value:

The first anchor 2:

The second anchor 2 (evidently marked down from a 3 because of the first sentence, which expresses an insight not explicitly intended by the test developers) :

Finally, the anchor 1s, which are both minimal (though not incorrect) statements about volcanoes:

An anchor 1:

Another anchor 1:

There are no anchor zeros shown here, though there would be some in the actual training pack given to the test scorers. You might be wondering what would happen if a kid simply plagiarized the text of the article: she would get a 1 if she copied the text down more or less correctly. This is fair, since the ability to write something down is in fact a useful skill— almost as useful as the skills she's actually being tested on here.

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