No Congressman left behind

March 26th, 2009 — Wordman

During his campaign, President Obama promised to reform No Child Left Behind, calling it “one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics”. No doubt he’ll get around to doing so before too long. Chances are, however, that any improvement will still involve some sort of standardized test, in one capacity or another.

Though I’ve never really liked standardized testing, I have some suggestions for whatever bill gets written to “improve” No Child Left Behind:

  1. Whatever standardized test is settled upon, it must be administered annually to all members of the U.S. Congress, with results made public, by name. (The rest of this post will call this test by its current name, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP.)
  2. Six months after Congress takes this test, they must take another standardized test created specifically to assess their abilities in key areas necessary to make informed choices about the laws they create. Again, the results would be made public. (Since all tests need a TLA to be taken seriously, call this the Legislative Aptitude Test or LAT.)

In addition to testing basic reasoning and skill, a strong motivation of the LAT will be questions aimed and determining how well our lawmakers detect bogus statistics, improper inferences, logical fallacies and flat out bullshit from lobbyists and people who testify before congress. The test will involve the following sections:


The NAEP should take care of the basics of arithmetic, algebra and so on, so the math portion of the LAT should emphasize unraveling the weaselly corporate statistic speak used by lobbyists to lie. Some sample questions:

A popular light beer claims to have “one-third less calories than regular beer”. If a regular beer has 120 calories, how many calories does a light beer meeting this description have:

  1. 0
  2. 40
  3. 80
  4. 120
  5. 160

Answer: C. [120 – (120÷3) = 120 – 40 = 80]

You are invested in a stock with a steady price of $100 per share. One day, the price drops to $75 per share, a 25% drop. Approximately how much will the price now need to rise to get back to the original $100 price?

  1. 10%
  2. 25%
  3. 33%
  4. 50%
  5. 100%

Answer: C. [75x = 100; x = 100/75; x ≈ 133%, an increase of 33%.]


The NAEP has questions that cover Geography, though I’m not sure if it has an official Geography section. The LAT, however, should. Further, this section should combine current events and historical context as well. Sample questions:

The second largest denomination of Islam believes that Muhammad’s family and descendants have special spiritual and political rule over the community. Further they believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the first of these Imams and was the rightful successor to Muhammad and thus reject the legitimacy of the first three Rashidun caliphs. What is this denomination called, and in which country does it dominate?

  1. Sunni, Iraq
  2. Shia, Iran
  3. Sunni, Saudi Arabia
  4. Shia, Saudi Arabia

Answer: B

During 2008, what country had a nation occupied by the U.S. military on its main western border and another country occupied by the U.S. military on its main eastern border, but was not itself occupied by the U.S. military?

  1. Iraq
  2. Iran
  3. Somalia
  4. Syria

Answer: B

If you walked from the geographic center of the most populous Muslim nation directly towards Australia, which direction would you be walking?

  1. South
  2. Southeast
  3. East
  4. North

Answer: A [Australia lies directly south of Indonesia.]

In 1981, Israel bombed a French-built 70-megawatt uranium-powered nuclear reactor near what capital city?

  1. Beirut
  2. Baghdad
  3. Damascus
  4. Tehran

Answer: B


The accounting questions in the NAEP are OK, but most aren’t really policy type questions. In this section, I’d honestly settle for something that forces someone studing for the LATs to question his sanity. Such as:

If a private business enters an contract where it agrees to pay out some amount of money (to, say, it’s employees) several years from now, it is obligated by law to account for this future liability. Is the U.S. government required to do the same?

  1. Yes
  2. No

Answer: B (It would be highly entertaining to read the answers to a follow-up essay question: is this a good idea?)

You are given take $1 million of taxpayer to help correct the financial crisis. Which of the following actions has no chance of making any money back on your investment?

  1. Provide loans at reasonable rates to large companies that employ many people.
  2. Buy assets backed by American homes from banks that don’t know how to price them because they don’t trust each other, and become a source of trusted information in a market for them, eventually selling them.
  3. Make housing payments for citizens with poor reading comprehension and math skills.

Answer: C

Given single-handed control over government funds, how would you address the $60+ trillion shortfall that the U.S. will face in the coming decades? (Essay question)

Answer: I’m sure it will be good. If it doesn’t at least include the menu of pain or a way of offing the Boomers, it’s wrong.


Imagine an isolated island, populated by a variety of animal species, but no human beings. After several centuries of stability, the island suffers a fairly sudden environmental change (drought, a major fire, etc.). The theory of evolution predicts that:

  1. Some individual organisms will develop new traits that adapt to the change. Those that don’t will die off.
  2. If any of the slight differences between individuals present within a species provide an advantage in the changed environment, those differences are more likely to be passed on to future generations.
  3. By chance, some individuals in a species will be physically larger and stronger than the others. These individuals will live through the change while the others die off.
  4. The Creator will choose which organisms live and die through the change.

Answer: B [A is wrong because individual organisms don’t evolve; species do. C is wrong because an advantage that turns out to help a species survive a given shock isn’t necessarily related to physical size and strength.]

You are breeding an organism of some kind in a bottle. At 11am, you put the first two organisms into the bottle. The population in the bottle doubles every minute. At noon, the bottle is full. At what time does the bottle become half full?

  1. 11:00 am
  2. 11:30 am
  3. 11:59 am
  4. noon

Answer: C (Follow-up essay question 1: what time do you think it would be when the population in the bottle notices that “its getting crowded in here”? Follow-up essay question 2: what time do you think it would be when the entire population in the bottle chokes on its own waste and dies?)


According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in 1999, as the number people using Napster to illegally share music files rose, what happened to the shipments of CD albums?

  1. Decreased 50%
  2. Decreased 20%
  3. Decreased 10%
  4. Stayed the same
  5. Increased 10%

Answer: E (see this hysterical article, which hides inconvenient truth behind a lot of dire numbers about “CD singles”, a format no one cares about, and one that many consumers have never even seen.)

A hypothetical cellular carrier handles 100,000,000 calls per day. Running the network for one day costs $100,000. Trough subscription rates, customers on this network pay an average of $1 per call. The carrier testifies before Congress that, in addition to its normal traffic, each day they also have 10,000 calls made fraudulently. How much does each fraudulent call cost the carrier?

  1. $100
  2. $1
  3. Between $1 and and $0.01
  4. Less than $0.01

Answer: D.

Moral Reasoning

A lobbyist wants you to vote for something to which you are 100% opposed. How much does the lobbyist need to pay to get your vote? (Essay question.)

Well, OK, maybe I’m not the person to design the questions for this test, but the basic idea is sound. If some panel can figure out a standardized test that millions of students have to take, surely we can come up with a decent test for the legislative branch.