McNally and Miller: the vast education conspiracy, part 1

Novelist John McNally (who also edited that teenage loser anthology I contributed to) worked in educational testing years ago. The experience spawned his latest book, America’s Report Card, which imagines standardized tests as a secret government effort to fingerprint the minds of our nation’s youth.

Joe Miller‘s Cross-X: A Turbulent, Triumphant Season with an Inner-City Debate Squad, meanwhile, is a nonfiction account of his time with a debate team from a poor, all-black Kansas City high school that’s been left to rot. While documenting the successes of his debate students, and the stumbling-blocks that always seem to materialize in their path, Miller spins out his own conspiracy theories about the increasingly stultifying nature of public education.

As I read Cross-X, I kept wondering what kind of conspiracy theories these guys would spin out if they put their heads together. And then I decided to find out. In today’s installment, Miller interviews McNally about school testing. (If it’s been a while since your high school days, try your hand at some of the actual test questions.)

Miller: Before I read your book, it never occurred to me that school testing might be a tool of social control — at least not in the way you depict it, as a mass psychological profile data collection system. Fascinating idea. Do you really believe this is what’s going down? I mean, obviously you’re writing fiction. But still. You actually worked for one of these testing companies, didn’t you? What’s the truth underneath it all?

McNally: Yep, I scored standardized tests, off and on, for three years for about eight bucks an hour, and most of what I scored was what’s known as the Nation’s Report Card. I went into the job with a low opinion of the industry and left rather horrified by it. For my novel, I made up the idea of the tests being a mass psychological profile data collection system, but it’s no secret that the government tries to get as much bang for their buck as they can out of these tests. The information gathered from the tests that students take for No Child Left Behind is given to, and then used by, the U. S. military, for instance — most likely for recruitment purposes.

Parents can write a letter and ask for their child to be exempt from this aspect of No Child Left Behind, but I doubt most parents are even aware that this is being done. I don’t think the notion of standardized tests being used as mass psychological profiles is far behind. As a fiction writer, I’ve discovered that it’s hard to outpace the nefariousness of the Bush Administration.

The real problem with standardized testing is that it’s an elitist institution. If you can afford to live in Winnetka, Illinois, which probably has one of the best-funded high schools around, then you can send your kid to Kaplan, and most likely your kid’s going to do better than kids at, say, inner-city high school, like the one in your book. With rare (and extraordinary) exceptions do these lower-income kids ever have a fighting chance to go to college, do well, and then move on into the middle class. The system — the way it’s set up right now, at least — almost guarantees failure for some and success for others.

Miller: Don’t be so coy, John. What exactly changed your low opinion into horror? What did you see on the inside? I vaguely remember those tests. They had a bunch of squares and circles you had to group, and I think some stories about animals you had to read. Did my underdeveloped brain tissue somehow leave a mark on the system? Are my old test scores like intellectual DNA stored away somewhere, just waiting to be used against me? Like, how might this “notion” of the next level in school testing play out?

McNally: As in my novel, there was a rumor that every test ever taken is stored at a secret underground location somewhere. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I liked the idea of it. What frightened me, however, was that we were being trained to figure out how the tests that we were scoring had been scored in the past, because that’s how my company determined “consistency,” and “consistency” was how the government, who contracted the company I worked for, determined how well we were doing our job. In other words, if the test we were scoring had been scored incorrectly in the past, we had to figure out how to score it incorrectly again. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be consistent, and nothing was more important than consistency!

We would always begin a new project by looking for the correct answers, but as soon as it was determined that our consistency was out of whack, we would start trolling for other acceptable answers. By the end of the week, there was often little correlation between the question on the test and several of the “acceptable” answers on the board. My job, I came to realize, wasn’t to score standardized tests; it was to keep the fat government contracts rolling in for this massive company I worked for.

Miller: That was true?! I thought that was one of the most outrageous parts of your book. I mean, metaphorically sound, but implausible.

So is this “consistency” obsession a byproduct of blind bureaucracy, or is it something more nefarious? When I hear consistency without regard to content, I think what they’re really after is patterns. And that kind of underscores Big Brother data storage center you imagine in your novel. Like these tests are just a way to take stock of all of us.

And if that’s true, it makes me wonder about other threads in your book. Did you ever read an essay answer and have an instant connection with whatever student wrote it? Not fishing for personal disclosure so much as curious if human essence shows in these tests. Again, it makes me worry how much “They” might know.

McNally: Occasionally, a student would write an essay answer that would exhibit more intelligence than any other essay answer I’d seen, but more often than not, the essay would be subversive in some way, questioning the essay question itself while illuminating some truly great points. But here were essays (finally!) with souls behind them — not just some student who’d been trained how to write “the good essay.” Sadly, though, these essays generally received three points out of six because they fell into the “convoluted” category. The “good essays” — by “good” I mean formulaic, boring, and teachable — generally received six points.

We were told, time and again, that we were evaluating groups of students, not individuals, so we shouldn’t get bogged down worrying about an individual’s score. Still, it seems fucked-up beyond belief to me.

My conclusion? Standardized tests are great at evaluating people who can memorize; they fail when it comes to evaluating people who can bring disparate ideas together and then synthesize it all into a meaningful whole. Maybe I’m biased because I believe that synthesis is what also makes for a good fiction writer. But, really: The standardized testing industry is elitist because anyone with money can learn how to memorize shit. The ability to synthesize is (for me, at least) the true test of intelligence.


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