In Response to Sara Holbrook

On 5 January 2017, a revision of Sara Holbrook’s “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions about My Own Poems” appeared in the online Huffington Post. In the article, Holbrook discusses the misuse of her poetry by the authors of the 2013 and 2014 Texas standard middle-school assessments. She does so first by noting that one of the poems used by the test is distinctly inappropriate for middle-school readers; she then remarks on the for-profit nature of standard test production and apologizes for the authors’ oversights. Holbrook moves on to note the unfair demands on teachers tasked with test-prep, citing one teacher who had emailed her with questions. She then points out the folly of the test questions and of the tests themselves, noting a study that asserts demography is as predictive of “student achievement” as the tests used to assess it. After comes a screed against reliance on the tests, followed by a parsing of the questions asked by the test about her own poetry.

testing sheet illustration
If only…
Image taken from Texas Monthly, here, used for commentary

I read the article from the vantage of being a product of Texas’s public education, being one of the “test run” for the assessment culture that has grown up (I do not apologize for the pun), being a former teacher, having been one of those paid to write exam questions (although for college rather than high- or middle-school students), and being (at least in my own mind, through with some outside evidence) a poet; as might be thought, I have a fair bit to say about it and about the broader circumstances that surround it. As might also be thought, little of it is favorable. Some of it even includes naughty words; they are the right ones, I think.

As someone who came through public education in Texas–I graduated from the local high school in 2000–I got to have a fair bit of experience with the rites and rituals that mark moving through the grades, though they have since grown more strict and ossified, constraining more people more tightly in their stony grip. Grades mattered, yes, but not so much as the tests; however high a GPA, a bad day during testing week meant make-up work or worse. I am fortunate in that I take tests well by simple virtue of practice, but being accustomed to testing rather than to more authentic, organic ways of demonstrating proficiency or mastery, I have suffered since; I was taught to test in school, and even in graduate school, I spent more time worrying about completing assessments and passing benchmarks than about what I ought to have been. It’s part of why I don’t have an academic job. Clearly, I’m not going to be too happy looking back upon it.

I think I am part of the groundwork for the assessment culture that has grown up in education since the early 2000s. In school, I was part of the gifted-and-talented program; the idea is that students deemed to be academically exceptional are placed into more challenging, accelerated coursework so that they can more fully develop their intellectual faculties. But what it was for me was more a series of tests that seemed never to end than anything else; I recall being pulled from music and gym classes to take standardized test after standardized test, something like “Let’s see how much we can push the smart kids and dial back slightly from that.” While my later school years did offer me coursework that helped me in college, I feel I missed out on a lot of what I would have otherwise gotten. My brother felt similarly; when he had the opportunity to get into gifted-and-talented work, he refused it, citing my example. When, therefore, Holbrook comments about what is lost to students when they are obliged to focus on test prep, I cannot help but think she is right, that standardized testing is wrong.

I know I have made much of not having secured a full-time continuing teaching position; that I have made much of it comes from having long, long wanted to teach as a career. I trained for it, and no small amount of that training had me working in classrooms with students–which meant I got to help with test prep for a fair bit of the time, and I got to help proctor exams during my student-teaching semester. The kind of nervousness betrayed in the email Holbrook presents was common among the teachers with whom I worked, and no wonder, given that their already-insufficiently-compensated work was imperiled by students having a bad day (or coordinating efforts, which I know happens; I’ve been part of it in other circumstances), and I have to wonder if they knew then as I know now that years of work in the classroom looks to folks hiring like no work at all. (I’ve said it before, but I do not tire of it: fuck George Bernard Shaw.) And test-prep is a time-suck for all involved; it does get in the way of having teachers who enjoy the job and are driven to excel at it no less than it does the students’ love of learning. Neither is a good thing; both are reasons to get rid of the droning dull exam.

I do have to say, though, that working on writing exams was a generally pleasant experience. I made a fair bit of money doing it when I needed a fair bit of money; I benefited from exams being for-profit concerns, though not nearly so much as did the people in charge of such companies as I contracted for. And I was able to put my experience taking so damned many exams to good use; I had and have a developed sense of what questions are “supposed” to look like, how answer-sets should function. As such a professional, then, I quail at the kinds of questions Holbrook reports; the answers are inane, and there are answer-sets in which no one answer appears as best, which is the supposed standard used to determine whether or not a student has answered “correctly.” I held my PhD when I wrote tests; I believe I can claim some expertise with the subject matter. Like Holbrook, I cannot settle easily upon an answer; I can hardly think that seventh- and eighth-graders would do better–unless they have been carefully directed to approach poetry in exactly and only one way, and that a way that those of us who do or have done the work of looking at literature do not. It’s not an argument in favor of the kind of test Texan students take.

And that last bit scares me as someone who has some interest in “creative” writing. Here, I disagree with Holbrook to some extent; I do not think that I have the sole and definitive answer about a poem’s meaning, even when I’ve written the poem, and I do not think that my statements about intent are necessarily authoritative (again, I do not apologize for the pun). Wimsatt and Beardsley have the right of it; authorial intent is a faulty standard to apply, in part because it is outside the text, and in part because it cannot be accurately ascertained. I do not necessarily recall what I was thinking when I wrote a given piece, and even if I do, what I remember may not be what was. Yes, the tests ask about authorial intent rather than narratorial motion (which is shitty test-writing), but even asking the author–as Holbrook calls for–is not necessarily enough to get the “right” answer. Nor, again, is it the case that there is one “true” reading of a poem; indeed, one of the things I sought to stress to my literature students is that the very thing that keeps a piece of literature under study is that it sustains multiple interpretations. But that runs counter to multiple-choice exams, which is why it doesn’t get the support it ought to–and which is another reason why the damned tests, as written, are so fucking bad.

None of this is to say there should not be standards. It’s also not to say there shouldn’t be some standardization; there are reasons a nation-state might want to insist on such things, and some of them are even good ones. It’s clear to me, though, that the standardization that is in place is not aimed at serving such ends as might be thought of as worth having; rather, it’s a means of control and punishment, a means to bring others to heel–and for certain select groups to take money from the public purse as they do it. It’s a load of bullshit, somewhere between the Frankfurtian and the Fredalian, and it stinks, indeed.

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