09 May 2012
Once upon a time, Daniel Pinkwater, a children’s book author who traffics in nonsense, sold one of his stories to an educational publisher with the understanding that the company would repurpose the text on a standardized test. Some ten years later, Pinkwater’s passage—completely rewritten to feature a talking pineapple instead of a talking eggplant (remember, nonsense) and accompanied by inscrutable multiple-choice questions—showed up on the New York State reading exam. Since then, the author has been inundated with inquiries from New York schoolchildren who want to know, seriously, WTF.
To me, this news blip is a story of a hope: the very fact that so many kids were puzzled by the mangled passage suggests that they’re doing okay.
But opponents of standardized testing have found an irresistible parable in the Daniel Pinkwater scandal. (No, no one else is actually calling it that.) The layers of absurdity to the story—that (a) an educational publisher purchased the rights to a nonsense story that (b) was mangled into even more gibberish-y gibberish by some inept editor(s) who (c) couldn’t formulate coherent questions with clear answers that (d) were to be used to calculate test scores that have real-life consequences for both students and teachers (whose pay is often tied to student performance)—surely proves, with poetic flair, every argument ever made about the inanity of standardized testing.
Or so they say. As a freelance writer who has worked in educational publishing for more than 10 years, I’m not so sure. The very idea that the (non-)Pinkwater passage and questions were bad suggests that there are other, better, passages and questions.
When I was asked to write my first reference book article at the age of 22, I was incredulous. Growing up in the pre-Internet era, encyclopedias were sacred texts, the one-stop authority for whatever question you might have about the world. As a child, I had the vague sense they were produced by a secret society of scholars in some distant land teeming with blind old men and owls. You know, the experts.
When I received my first assignment (“bear trapping”), I felt like a fraud. Surely there was someone more qualified to write about such things, like maybe the guy who caught the possum family that lived under my mom’s house.
That same sort of fraudulent feeling stayed with me as I moved deeper into the world of educational publishing, where I started writing passages and questions for textbooks and teachers’ editions and assessment tests. And while I did have to adjust to the weird neutered world that is writing small chunks of fiction for schoolchildren (pro tip: any knife in the hands of a youth might as well be a shiv, even if she’s cooking dinner with her mother), it turns out it was totally do-able.
However fractured human existence might be, I promise you it’s possible to write sets of multiple-choice questions that aren’t existential riddles. Despite what the New Yorker might have you believe, test making and taking is not all that postmodern.
My professional experiences have humanized an industry that, for most people, remains faceless. The authorship of many textbooks is so fragmented and compartmentalized that they are effectively author-less. While I have never worked for Pearson, the entity behind the Pinkwater scandal, I reckon it would be difficult to attach names and faces to most of the materials they produce. Yet one of the most basic lessons of information literacy (a standard that’s stressed in grades 11 and 12) is the fact that there’s always an author. And different authors have different biases, agendas, and levels of proficiency.
By and large, I think that’s a good thing. How often are multiple perspectives anything but an advantage? If anything, it helps balance out an industry that frequently caters its products to the frighteningly narrow conservative agendas of big states like Texas. And while I’m just one little fish in a very big sea, most of the writers and editors I have worked with over the years have seemed really smart and capable and absolutely aware of the pitfalls of learning standards.
That is not to say there aren’t problems with standardized testing, because please. The arguments about cultural bias and so forth (which are less arguments than straight-up FACTS) hardly need to be rehashed here. Standardized testing is a flawed tool tied to an educational system that is broken and bent. But the fundamental problem with standardized tests is less with the questions themselves and more with the sheer difficulty of trying to quantify what any child learns over the course of a year, because verily that shit is mysterious.
Despite these difficulties, we persist with the testing, because the hard truth is that we live in a world that requires shortcuts by which we can judge others. We just don’t have the time to consider individuals in their fullness, as the special snowflakes that they most certainly are. Sad but true.
It’s ironic to me how often opponents of standardized tests seem to romanticize certain aspects of education in this country. We bemoan the plight of teachers who are forced to “teach to the test.” Oh, if only our teachers could throw tests out the window and teach what’s in their hearts!
To some extent, that is true; there are amazing teachers out there who are being oppressed by the system. Those people should totally teach what’s in their hearts. But in teaching, as in educational publishing and every other profession, there are the people who mean well and the people who don’t give a hoot, all going about their jobs with varying degrees of skill and talent. My own public school system, which had maybe three Stand and Deliver-style mentors and a handful of competent instructors, was staffed largely by dullards and sadists who might as well have taught to a test. At least then they would have been teaching something.
All to say: in education, there ain’t no sinners and there ain’t no saints. It’s a delicate ecosystem with complex elements—politicians, administrators, teachers, parents, and, yes, the creators of textbooks and tests—that are dynamic and interconnected. To pluck out any one of these elements and single it out as a scapegoat is futile, because none of them exists in a vacuum.
Nor are they faceless entities. There’s always a man (or a woman, or a minor, who may or may not be clutching a shiv) behind the curtain. We need to reframe the discourse in terms of those faces—that is, individual performance and personal responsibility—and how those parts affect the whole.