Saturday, February 25, 2006

None of the Above. None.

A few ground rules for standardized testing for members of the House and Senate: test-prep fees can never be paid by lobbyists.

By Anna Quindlen

Feb. 20, 2006 issue - When I read that a presidential commission was considering standardized testing in colleges to gauge the level of learning, I was a little dispirited. I'd gotten a kick out of the fact that my homegrown college students were finally free of percentiles and national means. For what seemed like the first time since they turned 4, they were able to forget about filling in those little bubbles and swap their No. 2 pencils for paintbrushes, props, ancient prose and modern experimental poetry. And parties. Well, never mind that part.

Then I realized that I was thinking small, and so were the Feds. Through their No Child Left Untested initiative, they'd managed to metastasize school testing so that it was everywhere, from the early grades through high school. Why stop there? Why stop at all?

You there, with the plumber's van! Which of the wrenches pictured here is really best for removing this piece of pipe? Wait, wait—not the one that would do a pretty decent job if you held it the right way! The very best one as determined by a government panel of plumbing experts. And don't peek over the shoulder of that guy next to you. He's doing the heating-and-cooling achievement test. That's an entirely different thing.

Miss! Miss! Put down that tray. Dover sole is to flounder as mahimahi is to what? Where exactly are the thousand islands of Thousand Island dressing, and should you serve pie a la mode with a fork, a spoon or both? Mom, stop the stroller. Have you really studied "100 Irrational Fears You'll Have Before She Turns 2"? Are you ready for the multiple-choice questions about introducing solid food and whether or not to use a pacifier? And please don't try that "use your best judgment" excuse. A blue-ribbon panel of psychologists developed this test, which they were able to do because none of them actually have young children.

And don't think you babies are off the hook. For years you've gotten away with nothing more taxing than that Apgar test at birth, which measures stuff like muscle tone and respiration. Anyone can breathe! Keep an eye on that mobile over the crib. Track it... track it... yes! It looks as if there may be an excellent preschool in your future if you can pass the AP potty test by the time you're 3.

Of course, we've made sure some Americans already take government-mandated tests even when they're not in school. Immigrants becoming citizens, for instance, take a test on the history of the United States that most of us born here wouldn't be able to pass. By contrast, people getting their driver's licenses take a written test, much of which could be answered correctly by squirrels:

You are approaching a stop sign when an elderly person using a cane crosses in front of your car. You should:
(a) speed up
(b) slow down
(c) beep your horn
(d) stop

The presidential commission is allegedly concerned about analytical skills, although one of its members runs a big test-prep company, which my analytical skills tell me means he has a vested interest in more testing. But testing the capability of college students surely isn't enough. If, as the commission suggests, colleges and universities are under pressure to prove their worth because they're pricey, Congress clearly has something to prove.

A few ground rules for standardized testing for members of the House and Senate: test-prep fees cannot be paid by lobbyists. No one can accompany the legislator into the testing room—no press secretaries, no aides, no special assistants in charge of health-care policy. Health-care policy won't be on the test anyhow because there are no clear answers to any question. There will, however, be a math portion for those legislators who think you can increase spending, cut taxes and yet still bring down the deficit. They'll be able to use their calculators. Their magic calculators.

The president has a lot on his plate, so he will be asked to take only the same achievement tests that American high-school students already take. European and American history, and maybe biology, so that he can have an introduction to pure science, as opposed to the political kind. He should probably also take the new SAT writing sample: "Benjamin Franklin once said, 'Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.' Discuss, using examples from your own foreign or domestic policy."

Think of all the job creation going on here: test writers, test monitors, test graders. And what about the underlying lesson learned, that it doesn't matter if you really resonate to knowledge, only if you can manage to spit it back over the course of a single, long, tedious session? That should be useful in much of the work world. Naturally, the commission must be tested as well, perhaps with this short essay question: "In recent years learning is said to be plummeting while at the same time the use of standardized testing is skyrocketing. What's the point? Discuss."

© 2006