The Inanity of Standardized Testing

Among the many plaudits that came to Louis Menand after the publication of The Metaphysical Club was the Pulitzer Prize for history. He deserved them all: this history of American philosophy is engaged, witty, knowledgeable and thorough. One example of its excellence is a two-paragraph character sketch[1] of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the distinguished polymath and father of the Supreme Court justice. The sketch is vivid and pointed, though perhaps its judgment of its subject’s sense of self-esteem is a bit hard on Holmes. The way to judge, of course, would be to compare it with other material at hand about Holmes and his world. Menand is harder on William James—too hard, I think, in light of my other reading about him. That should not affect my admiration of the work as a whole, provided that I take his assessment of persons with a bit of caution.

I would certainly not want to say that Menand and other writers of history should be bound by rules of writing, or that our judgment of them should be governed by simplistic rubrics. How, for example, should Menand’s writing about James be compared with Jacques Barzun’s? No rubric will say, for judgment is an art, or at least a matter of finesse, as Pascal put it.

Finesse works better when the mass of little details that surround a piece of work are known to the one making the judgment of it. And who will know this mass of details in a student’s writing better than a teacher? This is the finding of research showing that tests produced close to home and assessed by a student’s teachers were more sensitive to the details and subtleties of students’ knowledge than are tests produced by state and national organizations and graded by strangers or machines. My posting linked above mentions this research in connection with rating teachers, but it is obviously important in rating the students themselves.

How important may be inferred from an article in The New York Times about students’ essays being graded by (mostly) non-teachers in the employ of an “education” company.  They are paid less for their work than McDonald’s employees in Los Angeles will soon be paid for cooking hamburgers: perhaps the company applies stringent quality control standards to separate the sheep from the goats in this field of talent.

The question they will grade requires students to “[r]ead a passage from a novel written in the first person, and a poem written in the third person, and describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.” Now, one reason not to centralize testing[2] is to prevent thousands or millions of students from having to answer one of the most inane exam questions I have ever seen. At least an isolated teacher coming up with this question will bewilder or frustrate only a roomful of students.

What can the examiners be getting at? I am afraid that the only answer is to buy the textbooks helpfully made by the same “education” company, and try to figure out what they mean.

Going to the Common Core for guidance will not help. It has a standard requiring that students in Grade 5 be able to “[d]escribe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.” Aside from its avoidable ugliness, the standard is off base in what intellectual powers it requires of the poor students. Surely what they need to do here is not to describe but to analyze?

The task is made not just inane but complex because the two extracts chosen are from different genres, a novel and a poem. Thus, a ten-year-old student is required to examine point of view cross-generically and abstract principles about its possible effects from two given extracts, presumably fortifying his assertions with examples.

Allow me to present a miniature illustration. For the sake of brevity, I will use a stanza of a poem and a paragraph from a short story rather than anything longer, but they should serve to make my point. To simplify further, both passages have snakes as their subjects. The first is from ‘A narrow fellow in the grass’ by Emily Dickinson; the second, from “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“A narrow fellow in the grass / Occasionally rides; / You may have met him—did you not / His notice sudden is, / The grass divides as with a comb, / A spotted shaft is seen, / And then it closes at your feet, / And opens further on.”[3]

“Round his brow he had a peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles, which seemed to be bound tightly round his head. As we entered he made neither sound nor motion…. I took a step forward. In an instant his strange headgear began to move, and there reared itself from among his hair the squat diamond-shaped head and puffed neck of a loathsome serpent.”[4]

Your task if you are ten years old is, by reading both extracts, to “describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.” The question is unanswerable, for nothing in these two extracts, or indeed any two extracts, implies hard and fast rules about the uses of point of view; and ten-year-olds can’t be expected to address this question any other way. I would be willing to bet good money that the company’s textbook has somewhere a list of unwarranted generalizations, perhaps two columns of bulleted points, contrasting first and third persons. Further, I bet the extracts conform to the expectations the list engenders—not because the expectations are generally true but because the examples have been chosen to fit them. It gives me a headache thinking about Dickinson’s poem being cross-personified in this bizarre way. The same with Menand. Never mind: somehow somewhere someone decided this “method” would do.[5]

Though this activity is questionable, at least a lesson in a classroom, followed by a home-made test asking students to apply the lesson, is an understandable and perhaps valid way to judge what the student has learned. The point that the critics of standardized tests make is that they are likely to miss what those students have learned. The only way to be sure of securing good marks is to pay more money for the book in which the “education” company “interprets” the standard.

But home-grown testing and grading have another advantage. All that perpetual discretion that teachers have been using for weeks or months in teaching and sizing up their students can be brought to bear in assessing them. That is a good thing.

[1] Appearing on pp. 6 – 7 of the FSG paperback edition

[2] Make it “proximal”, the term used by the authors of the study I refer to in my other posting.

[3] It is true that the speaker, a man, delivers the last stanza in the first person, but that may add to the difficulty of this question.

[4] The speaker is of course Dr. Watson

[5] We might say that third person is more ‘objective’ and less ‘emotional’ than first person.  Then what about our examples here? Whatever objectivity means, most people would say that Louis Menand’s sketch of Holmes has a distinct personal cast. And, to take an example from the past, what about Darwin’s Galapagos diaries, all in the first person?


Welcome to the Moated Grange

She only said, “This reading is dreary,

It pleaseth not,” she said.

She said, “This reading makes me weary,

I wish that I were dead!”

—refrain from “Mariana Meets the Common Core” (with apologies to Tennyson)

One of my earliest postings condemned the topsy-turvy notion that in English classes a book of literature is “intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” Using examples of poetry I tried to show that literature can have an artistic integrity and appeal to interests and tastes worth cultivating for their own sake. Students caught up in a good poem could then come to an understanding of it using their powers of thought and feeling. Eventually those powers, strengthened by encounters with those appealing works, could be applied to the study of non-literary works if needed.

This does not mean that I disapprove of reading work not traditionally thought of as literature. Excellent writers of prose non-fiction abound and may be used with profit by English teachers. In my IB English classes I have taught essays by George Orwell and James Baldwin. For years before that I used The Norton Reader and the Introduction to Great Books series, which I also use in my Theory of Knowledge classes. In ToK we sometimes use articles from The New Yorker and The New York Review as well as work by Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist whose writing is on the IB Prescribed Literature list[1]. Last year the IB English A Literature exam had as one of its ‘unseen passages’ for commentary in Paper 1 an extract from Sir John Keegan’s history of The First World War.

What all these writings have in common is that they are well written. Most of them also share what Barzun calls a “thickness” that allows us to draw on them for more than we might find in thinner stuff. But the final thing is that many of them have an artistic integrity and appeal to which the good reader will respond. Take for example Keegan’s history. The extract on the exam was so good that I immediately ordered and read the whole book. While some of it was not up to the standard of the exam extract, I thought it on the whole a very good book worth reading in its entirety, not just that little snippet, however good it was.

The point worth remembering about such works in light of this posting’s subject is that they are both “informational” (i.e., informative) and “literary.” It turns out that many teachers and “curriculum specialists” rolling out the Common Core think writing must be one or the other. That error may be due to generalizing about “informational” (i.e. informative) writing from what they read in education school, but what is worse is that some of them are “pairing” gobbets of literature with non-fiction reading in order to make them more “relevant”. Hence the pairing of extracts from The Odyssey and sections of the GI Bill in order to ‘connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans’.

This is either profoundly goofy or profoundly stupid. The first thing I thought of was how to ‘connect’ Athena to the Veterans’ Administration. A compare-contrast essay? Columns of bulleted points? FAQs? Role play between Athena and a VA bureaucrat? The second thing I thought of was ‘connecting’ the writing of Homer to that of Congressional lawmakers. After the section in which Odysseus puts out the Cyclops’ eye, try giving your own 10th-graders a taste of the law. Where do you begin if you don’t want your students to run away screaming from careers as lawyers—or from the classroom?

But the worst part of this ‘movement’ is the reductionist smoke and mirrors by which “teaching literature” is equated with “teaching particular concepts and skills.” Once you have made that category error, the next step follows inevitably: “we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.” Thus is art erased from life, just as it is being erased from school.

I just finished reading Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Are the proponents of this approach going to claim that instead of reading the entire book, I should read just one of the passages in which Rasheed beats his wives, with a gloss explaining that Hosseini explores “lives imprisoned by patriarchy”? How explanatory! But what happened to Laila and Mariam? For that matter, what happened to Afghanistan?  When you teach art as something with its own integrity, these things do not vanish. When you “teach” it as an exercise in second-rate concept-work, they do.

If I had “learned” “literature” this way, I think I would have felt like “Mariana on the moated grange.”

[1] I gave my students this year the choice of studying Orwell’s essays or Gould’s for “Part 2.” They chose Orwell. One of Orwell’s essays is a hostile review of Yeats’s poetry. By the time the students read it, they will be able to comment intelligently because they are now studying Yeats.


Scything the Hot-house Flowers: Failure IS an Option

failure (n): a key to success. ‘The idea of building grit and building self-control … you get … through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.’—Dominic Randolph, Headmaster, Riverdale Country School, New York. ‘Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential’—J. K. Rowling in her commencement address at Harvard.

—from the Didact’s Dictionary

Educators, popular writers, psychologists, and twelve-step programs: all these say that we must work through our rock bottoms, our nadirs, and our difficulties. Yeats adds his poetic testimony in the lines “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.” In the face of what Richard Hofstadter called “the collective experience of the human race,” many schools in the US, and perhaps some universities, are offering the infantilizing alternative that “failure is not an option” and replacing “the fascination of what’s difficult” (Yeats again) with “the menace of what’s difficult.”

From this premise some people question the sense in allowing accomplishment that might entail challenge or danger. I do not mean unreasonable danger; I mean any danger at all. Take as a first example physical danger. An old headmaster of my acquaintance, teaching in the Pre-Cambrian Era, allowed at the school he headed a number of tree houses in the schoolyard. I asked him once whether he was worried what would happen if a student fell out and broke an arm. He said, “No, we would get them a cast and in a few weeks everything would be fine.” Any child allowed in a tree house is enchanted by them, hence their (former) popularity. Any child with a memory of tree houses who reads in The Lord of the Rings about Lórien finds the land’s first enchantment is that its inhabitants live in tree houses.

By contrast I have in mind a friend’s young daughter, who decided she wanted to learn to roller-skate. The poor thing was swathed in shin guards and pads and lumps and braces till she looked lie a mini-Michelin Man as she tottered down the 2% grade in front of her parents’ flat. She never scraped a knee, but what else did she never do because abrasions were not an option?

The second kind of example is academic danger. Here we enter the realm of institutional make-believe, but also a world in which students are warned off intellectual challenges or padded against them. I have written about one American school, which hedged its own IB program with such off-putting warnings as “demanding,” “challenging,” “strict” and “stringent”. But there are programs out there that don’t even offer challenges with the hedging. Hence Poor Vanessa, who aced her high-school math tests without study but found herself foundering in college. And hence university students who read at the 7th-grade level. Failure has not been an option for them either.

Or has it? The New York Times reports a third danger in an upturn in cases of anxiety reported at US universities. One of the main causes is evidently that students who were swathed in protection for twelve years don’t know what to do when the prospect of real, authentic failure appears before them. Sometimes it is not failure: sometimes it is just getting the C that will “shatter” the fantasy prospect of medical school for a student who starts to crumple when assigned five hours of homework a week—not just per course, but in its entirety.

One wise teacher of my acquaintance used to tell his students, “You can pay now, or you can pay later.”  The thing about failure suffered early on in relatively supportive conditions is that “paying now,” even when somewhat painful, becomes a part of an education that insures against the worst effects of “paying later”. Students who have been given sixteen years of magic shows instead of education are unlikely to be accepted at medical school, but if they were, what would they do when faced with the Anatomy Lab (to take an early challenge) or their Internship-Residency (to take a later one)? What will flowers raised in a hot house do when the weather gets a bit nippy?