Two Poems For The Month Of Testing

Can April be the cruelest month, as T. S. Eliot declares in his bitterly pessimistic “The Waste Land”? For Eliot, April’s inherent cruelty is — ironically — precisely because of its vitality. April’s burgeoning life force engenders hope in a world that is both dark and hopeless.

But for many public school students and perhaps for teachers as well, the line is literally true: April is the cruelest month of the school calendar. April days that are not devoted to ‘test prep’ are spent on testing itself.

And some of what is going on in this crazy month defies the imagination. For example, critics of testing are having a field day with what they are calling “Pineapplegate.”

Here’s part of what Beth Fertig reported:

A pineapple, a hare and a swift outcry against a handful of confusing questions on this week’s English Language Arts exams have led the state’s education commissioner to scrap a portion of the eighth grade reading test.

The disputed section of the test contained a fable about a talking pineapple that challenged a hare to a race. But students and teachers complained that none of the multiple choice answers to several questions made sense.

In response to the complaints, the New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. concluded the questions were “ambiguous” and will not be counted against students.

“It is important to note that this test section does not incorporate the Common Core and other improvements to test quality currently underway,” Mr. King said in a statement, referring to a new teaching curriculum and standards that are being adopted in New York and other states. “This year’s tests incorporate a small number of Common Core field test questions. Next year’s test will be fully aligned with the Common Core.”

Pearson, a test preparation company, has a $32 million contract with the state to make the exams more rigorous.

Here’s more stuff that’s hard to believe. This is from The New York Post:

State Education Department officials were blind to the feelings of deaf students on this week’s English exams — heartlessly asking them questions about sounds such as the clickety-clack of a woman’s high heels and the rustle of wind blowing on leaves, educators claimed.

One sixth-grade teacher of hearing-impaired kids said they were completely thrown off by a lengthy listening passage rife with references to environmental noises — such as a cupboard door creaking open or the roar of a jet engine.

The kids were then asked to write how a boy who hears those sounds as music in his head is like a typical sixth-grader.

“My kids were looking at us like we had 10 heads. They said they didn’t understand the story,” the teacher said, referring to herself and a sign-language interpreter.

“It was all based on music and sounds in the world they don’t know,” added the perturbed teacher. “They definitely were upset.”

The teacher’s sound criticism was among a host of complaints about the new exams administered to students in Grades 3 to 8 this week, part of a five-year, $32 million deal with the testing company Pearson.

You may have noticed those two stories have one thing in common: Pearson. The giant company is also ‘field-testing’ its questions for next year’s tests — by extending the testing period for young kids this year, sometimes actually doubling the amount of time kids are being tested.

Not to pick on Pearson, but the company is offering $5 Starbucks cards to educators who will fill in its survey … and the opening sentences in the accompanying letter from this education giant contain basic grammatical errors.

In an effort to learn more about the challenges being faced by K-12 educators, would you please spare a few minutes to complete an online survey? It should take less than 15 minutes, and will provide us with very valuable feedback to improve our services and offerings.

The opening phrase, ‘In an effort….by K-12 educators,” modifies the closest noun or pronoun, which is YOU. So Pearson is asking me to fill out the survey so I can learn more?

Pineapples have caused an issue on some state tests.

The second sentence is compound, one subject (it) and two verbs (‘should take’ and ‘will provide’), and the grammatical rule is clear: no comma.

Much of the uproar seems to be coming from teachers, and cynics may suggest that’s because their ox is now being gored; after all, these tests are now being used to grade — and fire — teachers, so of course they are paying closer attention. Perhaps some teachers are late to the party, but so what! They’re here, and teachers like Anthony Cody have been in the forefront all along.

Some parents are fighting back against high stakes testing. Parents in Colorado, California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Indiana have opted out of high stakes testing for their children and have kept (are keeping) them home. A group with the impressive-sounding name of United Opt Out National is trying to coordinate the effort.

Peggy Robertson, a former public school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, leads the group, which she acknowledges has about 1,427 members — and no money — right now. “We are not against either testing or assessment, just this high stakes testing madness,” she told me. The number of Colorado families who kept their children at home last year was “five times more” than in 2010. It’s still only a few hundred, but Robertson is convinced that the numbers will grow “as more people become aware of the harm these tests are doing.”

And not just parents. Peggy shared a link to a letter from a New York principal.

There’s also a national effort, one that began in Texas, to slow down the testing express. As of April 23rd, 380 school boards in Texas, representing 1.8 million students, have signed this petition; that’s been rolled into a national petition.

What’s the alternative? This short piece was written by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons (Teachers College Press). It may make you think twice about the course we are on.

But it doesn’t follow that we could just ‘blow up’ our increasingly centralized approach and do what Finland does. Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving believes we need a new kind of school, one in which teachers have largely autonomous control. I’ve just finished reading the galleys of a new book, Liberating Teachers, that argues that position persuasively. Currently there are around 60 schools with autonomous teachers, cutting across all sorts of arrangements — district, chartered and independent. Some are union-affiliated, others are not. Urban, suburban and rural, serving students from preschool to age 21.

These schools are invariably small (like schools in Finland) and less reliant on standardized assessments (like Finnish schools).

And now — a final poem for April, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lovely sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?”

I first thought it should be “How Do We Test Thee? Let Me Count the Ways” until I realized that we basically have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to testing. No way to get a sonnet out of that.

So I went back to the drawing board and produced the following (with apologies to EBB):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Is it A? “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

Or B? “I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

C? “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;”

D? “I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.”

Or “All of the Above?”

Please mark your answer below with a No. 2 pencil, taking care to fill in the box completely without marking the area outside the box. If you do not follow directions, the machine may not be able to read your answer, and you will be marked down accordingly.


12 thoughts on “Two Poems For The Month Of Testing

  1. Only in America … After ripping off schools for years selling textbooks, the company sees the end coming and switches to testing services – making sure that there is no redeeming value yielded – no good feedback on learning, too much time spent on preparing for the exams (using practice materials that they probably sell as well) – except for inflated stock dividends and fat pay checks. Or that’s my beliefs at least. Oh, I left something out … Just ask them; I’m sure they are hard at work developing new and better bubble sheet tests, salivating while waiting for the CCSS assessment designs to be completed!

    Sorry, it’s been one of those weeks, learning how botched up the lead-up to the use of CCSS has been …


    • I have been working on a new documentary dealing with the erosion of the separation of church and state. One of the issues has been the introduction intelligent design and creationism into the classroom and the belief by some that this should be taught in science classes. One of the major objections of these doctrines by those in the science community is the absence of falsifiability — what evidence does one have to see to admit that a theory is flawed.

      From the sentiments written above and in this blog in general, I can’t comprehend how anyone would voluntarily subject their children to this environment. Things have obviously been getting worse as evidenced by NCLB and the increase in testing and drugging students, but even without those features, schools were never successful in educating people. My question is what would have to happen before people would concede that this model of teaching is flawed and unworkable? I suspect no one has an answer because it seems everyone in the reform movement has a faith based conception and nothing will ever shake that faith. If widespread failure, boredom, violence, and misery isn’t sufficient, what would you have to witness to say schools don’t work?


    • Don’t blame Pearson. They are playing within the rules of capitalism. The rest of us are behaving badly/stupidly


  2. Oh Mr. Merrow, that is a very naive statement. Could we not say that the most unethical companies around are simply following the rules of capitalism? Do we not have the authority to actually write those rules? The problem with Pearson, as with any company that seeks to monopolize an industry, is that they grease the wheels of capitalism in their favor. They’ve done an excellent job gaining valuable contracts to both write the curriculum and the tests on which it’s assessed. Then, through diffuse entities, they lobby public officials to mandate that certain things be taught and assessed. Ah, and lo and behold, Pearson is there to provide the product. That’s where the whole behaving badly belief that you have is naive. What if they become the only game in town, then what? If you’re mandated to use their product, and if you don’t you’ll lose your job, how is that even remotely fair and reasonable? I mean, we all cast aspersions at oil companies but we still drive because they know they’ve got us. Is that behaving badly? No, not really. And that’s not the case with Pearson either.


    • Yes, we can change the rules, but still we should expect companies to behave the same way and push as hard as they can. Ever watch a hockey game? Players do whatever they think they can get away with, which is why there are three officials.
      We need sunshine on the process. If Pearson or anyone else is subverting the process (as you say), then it’s up to the people and the press to expose this.
      I have said elsewhere that I anticipate an increase in home schooling if systems use the available technologies to become more of a ‘one size fits all’ system.
      This is another one of those proverbial crossroads…


      • You might seen an increase in homeschooling in some circles. However, it is a certain privilege to homeschool children because not everyone, especially in this economy, can afford the loss of additional income. And that doesn’t even get into single parents, or perhaps children that live with grandparents. Finally, perhaps it’s just not a parent’s desire to school their child.

        In any case, we need a free and equitable public school system for all and the goal is to protect that from corporate subversion. It’s interesting that you use the hockey game example (sorry Penguins). Perhaps it is Pearson that is trying to do whatever they can, but are teachers willing to do the same? What exactly are they getting away with in this instance? Not very much at all. What has gone their way in recent years? So, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Thus, you disempower teachers, allow a much larger and more powerful entity like Pearson to corner the curriculum and assessment, what are educators supposed to do to get away with anything?


  3. Two things – and they’re quite different.

    First, Pearson’s not playing “by the rules of capitalism,” they’re buying those rules with various state and federal officers. Sometime it may be coarse cash, but much more probable and more often it’s by portraying their metrics as the only ones that are feasible, and buying “into” the state and federal naivete that bubble tests are as accurate and “objective” as possible. They’re neither accurate nor “objective,” since they – like all “teachable moments” – circumstantial: some districts or states do well, since they test some years more than others; some students do well since they know the language better, even if they know more about the problems than the questions admit; and some teachers know better how the questions are framed with close-but-no-cigar optional answers. None of that is “objective,” and anybody who thinks – just a little – can see that.

    Second, and probably more important (!) than Pearson alone, there is a desperate need for alternative metrics that are statistically reliable, instructionally sound, and culturally independent. Just as bubble tests don’t meet all these tests completely, most alternatives won’t either, but they may be better, and even better when they are matched with the bubble tests for reliability, consistency, and cultural standards. You have that standard, and have contributed substantially to its newest forms, through ePortfolios, particularly when they use the Verified Resume categories as a standard scaffold against which students can show their skills, and the maturation of those skills over time and in various settings.

    With those categories, portfolios – which are often mandated as options for special education, even if they are rarely used – can develop comparability over time and across student, class, school, and district. Long demonstrated the best vehicle to capture what John Hattie identifies as the best and most enduring innovation – instruction in self-assessment (in Visible Learning) – ePortfolios are making dramatic headway in his New Zealand prototype ( which has popped that country to the top five on PISA standards.

    We know, now, why Finland is doing well. Look to New Zealand, with issues of cultural diversity, economic development, as well as western, highly competitive cultural standards and, perhaps most relevant, the Visible Learning categories of change, as an alternative model. What is difficult about standardized testing, and even more about opposing such tests, is to promote an alternative. YOUR VR categories and New Zealand’s ePortfolios are precisely that. For an example, just look


  4. It is a simple business plan – create need, (a way to “evaluate” schools, kids, teachers), create something to fill it, (tests), then make all of the peripherals like texts,study guides, parent guides, curriculum, etc., etc., etc., package it all up, sell it to all the schools, change the content on a regular basis to keep the cash flow, hire lobbyists to make sure our “brilliant” representatives make it a law to test, test, test, and they grow richer, and richer……..
    It would be wonderful if more and more people saw through this and exercised their “first amendment rights” and rejected the whole testing farce!


  5. More on the relevancy of testing: I was teaching kindergarten at Old Town Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M. The circus had come to town. The elephants were tethered in an empty lot not far from the school. I walked the children down to have a look. The next week was testing week:
    Question: If you walk through the woods near your house which animal might you see?
    a) a rabbit b) an elephant c) a whale.
    ( Guess which one the children chose? They were all marked wrong.)

    Reading comprehension question about circus animals- a monkey, a dog, and a pony. The monkey was riding the pony. The monkey’s name was “ChiChi” which in New Mexico Spanish means tits. Question: Which animal was riding the pony? None of the children marked “monkey.” They just laughed and laughed because “ChiChi” is a bad word.


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