Montillation in Progress

            A bright student of mine recently asked me what a “judicious tone” in writing was. I explained, and he brightened up, telling me that he had “guessed right” on a standardized test he had just taken. That test had a multiple choice question asking about the tone of a passage he had read, and he chose the right one not because he knew judicious writing when he saw it but because he could eliminate other possi­bilities from the five given him and guess fortunately among the remainder.

            This is distressing on two counts. One is that any guess on a five-choice question has one chance in five of being “right,” even on an answer requiring discrimination and judgment. Let students hazard guesses at the tone of a piece in an essay and see how lucky they get if they do not know about tone to begin with. 20% is too high a chance for random guesswork to be credited.

            The other is that students learn by taking such tests to associate good luck with “being right.” The problem with thinking this way is that if you get the “right answer” by guessing, you are not right, you are lucky; and there is a big difference between them. A multiple-choice test can’t distinguish between someone who is actually able to discuss the tone of a piece and someone who is a fortunate pointer. To the argument that four or five questions about tone would separate the knowledgeable test-taker from the lucky one, the answer is that this weeding-out is highly probable but in no way guaranteed and that in order to do the weeding the test has to sacrifice coherence. It would do so by taking four or five accidentally concatenated passages and questioning the test-taker about each one’s tone. By contrast, an essay on one passage or work could require a discussion of tone without sacrificing the coherence and depth that a thoughtfully composed essay question allows—requires—students to confer on their understanding.  This, not luck, is what students should associate with the tests they take.

            This student of mine and his classmates read a short piece last semester on “The Montillation of Traxoline” and took the short-answer quiz that followed. Traxoline doesn’t exist, making it rarer even than a judicious tone, and there is no process of montillation for traxoline or anything else. Nonetheless, my students were able to get 100% on the quiz. They did so by using their understanding of language and tests to mimic understanding of a subject.

            For all I know, someone will think these good examples of something called “test-taking skills,” but there is a difference between being able to take a test with confidence and aplomb and being able to wrench rightness out of it with luck and mimicry instead of knowledge, skill (no plural), and understanding. If that is what we want, then we are no different from Harry Potter’s nemesis Professor Umbridge, who says that getting students to pass tests is what schools are for.

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