It's standardized test season and, as a parent and a former teacher, standardized tests are on my mind. Here are a few thoughts, inspired by what I'm reading, on the topic of Standardized Testing.
America's Favorite Poet on Testing
In one of his talks about poetry, that I read in this collection, Robert Frost made a few side comments about grading and teachers. While we may expect a poet to condemn grading, perhaps because it reduces human effort to a number, Frost states that "marking" students is necessary and states that a grade is better than assigning adjectives. (I assume he is talking about labeling people.)
However, despite admitting the necessity of grading, Frost points out that grading students only on exactness is a disservice to students because taste and judgement are also a mark of an educated man.
"How shall a man go through college without having been marked for taste and judgement? What will become of him? What will his end be? He will have to take continuation courses for college graduates. He sill have to go to night schools. They have night schools, you know, for college graduates. Why? Because they have not been educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature. They don't know what they may safely like in the libraries and galleries. They don't know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don't know how to judge a political campaign. They don't know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, and analogy, a parable." --Robert Frost, Education by Poetry
When standardized tests grade solely on easily measurable subjects, such as math and reading comprehension, they make quantifiable subjects the "core" and reduce other important subjects into "enrichment" and "extracurricular" activities because they are difficult to grade. Soon after, important subjects like literature, ethics, and art become frivolous subjects and students are left to navigate the world of culture on their own.
How Standardized Tests Shape South Korea
One of the saddest reports of how standardized tests take over a child's life is depicted in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, where the author, Amanda Ripley, likens South Korea's education system to a pressure cooker.
“The Iron Child culture was contagious; it was hard for kids and parents to resist the pressure to study more and more. But all the while, they complained that the fixation on rankings and test scores was crushing their spirit, depriving them not just of sleep but of sanity.”
Standardized Testing in Nazi Germany
The novel I am currently reading, All the Light We Cannot See, depicts probably the worst standardized test in the history of the world: the entrance exam to an elite Nazi school. Intelligence and knowledge are just a fraction of what is tested. Physical fitness, racial background, hair and eye color, facial structure, body makeup, and obedience are also tested against a 'norm.' After having every part of his body sampled, measured, and quantified, the main character Werner wonders, "if there is anything left for them to measure." (page 114)
After everything about Werner and the other recruits are reduced to a series of numbers and checks, they are asked to complete a final test: climb a ladder to a platform 25 feet from the ground, close their eyes, and leap down to a Nazi flag held by a dozen fellow recruits. Before Werner is called, another recruits makes it to the platform and faints and falls. When he lands, no one rushes to help. When accepted into the elite school, Werner is hopeful, but his hope is tainted with worry because of this incident.
The scary part of the test that Werner took was that it not only evaluated the test takers it also formed the test takers into a different kind of person through the cut throat competition and unusually strict standards.
And once fully a participant of the system that he passed every test to be a part of, Werner stands by as his friend is punished for being weak, "every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong?...But here it is right."
A Poet Takes on Standardized Test Makers
One of my favorite articles from the Huffington Post has a poet ranting about how she can't answer the test makers questions about her own poem on the Texas STAAR test. I find her article this time of year just to read her conclusion:
"My final reflection is this: any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich. Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can’t protest. But I’m not dead...I protest."
Not being a person who has believes in magic, I have spent some time pondering the spell Harry Potter has cast on multiple generations of readers.
I used to say that the only real magic in Harry Potter was what the series accomplished with children's reading abilities: raised their reading level, increased their reading speed, and kindled a hunger to find another story to spark their imagination so vividly.
As a teacher, if I wanted to use an example from a book to explain a literary device, I soon learned that Harry Potter was one of the only stories that nearly all of my students had read. The percentage of students who read the books from their 8th grade English class didn't even come close to the percentage of students who read Harry Potter in their free time.
Recently, I've come to a better realization of what the true magic of the Harry Potter series is and it has nothing to do with the sort of magic students learned at Hogwarts.
It has been such a long time since I've read any of the Harry Potter series (I read Deathly Hallows the year it came out) and since I'm not into the movies (gasp!) so many of the minor details of the stories have fallen out of my memory, leaving only the essential events and characters and themes behind.
When only the essentials remain, the structure of the series becomes clear.
Harry Potter's story begins and ends with two acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of another person and that self-sacrificial love saves the world.
Before the series begins, Harry Potter's life is saved by his mother when she throws herself in the path of a death curse meant for her son. The power of her love deflects the curse and defeats the greatest evil the world has ever known.
The series climaxes when Harry realizes that the only way the evil Voldemort can be defeated is if he sacrifices himself, and he chooses to make the sacrifice because he loves his friends. Ultimately, it wasn't really a sacrifice because he came back to life so I guess it was the thought that counts? (By the way, I hold the unpopular opinion that Harry should have stayed dead for a variety of reasons, but that is another post.)
Does self-sacrifice for love really count as magic is this modern day?
We think pretty highly of ourselves, but there are so many ways to opt out of self sacrifice in our culture that we hardly realize when we are destroying the magic of life for someone else by seeking our own glorious future.
In a day and age when a parent can leave spouse and kids to find self-fulfillment or happiness apart from their family and when kids of healthy, whole families grow up, leave home, and never look back, I believe this idea of self-sacrificial love is really appealing. We live in a culture that tells us to look to ourselves for fulfillment and find our own happiness, but what if the real transcendent love that fills us to the brim only occurs when we pour ourselves into others without a thought for our own future?
Hi, I'm Michelle!
This is my collection of thoughts on good books and great books.