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?

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