The Student Who Knew Too Much

Food coloring spreading on a thin water film.
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I’ve never really understood calling someone “too smart for his own good.”

Today it was explained to me and now I get it. It has to do with standardized testing.

I spent today in a cool science professional development session at the NY Hall of Science. For anyone thinking about becoming a teacher, science PD is way more fun than social studies PD.

This PD dealt with the chemistry of water and there’s a whole lot more to it than I would have guessed.  Then again, chemistry is the only class I failed in high school. It was political.

The teacher required the memorization of the Periodic Table of Elements. I refused.

I probably could have gotten away with just not doing it if only I hadn’t condescendingly pointed out to the rookie teacher that the whole point of assembling the Periodic Table of Elements was so that poor schnooks who happened to have rookie chemistry teachers wouldn’t have to remember all those details about how many electrons Gonzonium has (names of elements have been changed to protect the innocent).

I have a lot more sympathy for rookie teachers, even rookie chemistry teachers, these days.

In today’s PD  session we counted how many drops of water could be dripped on a penny before it overflowed (a lot) and why (surface tension caused by bonds within the molecules), why detergent weakens those bonds (it has a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail).

We also observed how food coloring dripped into water diffused differently depending on the temperature of the water (in hot water the blue food coloring spiraled like a hurricane) and I learned a new word:


Miscibility is the ability of two liquids or gasses to mix.

Sounds innocent, right?

Well, miscibility is a very dangerous word.

Its dangerous because using it properly on the NYC or NYS science tests could get the answer marked wrong and lower the student’s score.

Yes, you read that correctly. Using the word properly could reduce the student’s score.

Here’s how:

The teachers who grade the science exams are not required to be science teachers. They could be math teachers, English teachers or, worse, social studies teachers.  Each grader is given an answer key and rubric. The answer key has a list of the words expected in the answer.

According to some of the science teachers in our group who have graded the science exams, the expected words for this concept of how two liquids mix include diffusion, mixing, combining, and blending.

Miscibility is not one of the expected words.

If a student uses miscibility to explain what happens when food coloring is dripped into water and has the bad luck to have a music teacher grade her exam, she will likely have her answer marked wrong.

Some teachers in our PD said they actually warn their students not to use the word at all because using it makes them “too smart for their own good.”

Imagine that, a student too smart for the exam.

Its a good thing we have teachers ready to prevent that from happening.

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