T.S. Elliot so eloquently wrote in The Waste Land, his words describing how the promise of April is subverted through acute and seemingly irreconcilable tensions, and one can’t help but wonder if the possibly prescient Thomas Stearns could have fathomed just how applicable his opening stanza would be to the April that we, heedless participants in our great and at times schizophrenic country’s system of education, must endure. Welcome, my friends, young and old, elementary through senior high, to the month–rife with memory (or, more accurately, memorization) and desire (for it to end, to please just end)–of relentless standardized testing.
Don’t get me wrong, I most certainly am not suggesting that I am anything less than grateful to have such finely honed and reliable learning assessment tools right at arms’ reach. I mean if it weren’t for the careful administration and scoring of yearly standardized achievement and aptitude tests, we–as a society, as a community, and, frankly, even as a family– would never be able to accurately separate the really stupid sub-par kids from the ones worthy of our time, attention, and focus. In addition, the public, and even many private, schools would have no idea at what point in the year to stop channeling their efforts into the dissemination and memorization of information, and instead use the vast array of resources at their disposal to better diagnose the disruptive boys–I mean children–with ADHD. But I digress…
Because I have such a vested interest in the outcome of such testing–being the ever loving and often cranky mother of three energetic boys–I knew that shock and more shock was the only appropriate response to my middle son’s–self-proclaimed math and science geek–perfect score of 600 on his writing SOL. In fact my unwavering though to this point non-committal belief in the entire education system was seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, shaken. The child couldn’t write…really…
“So,” I asked him, nonchalantly, not wanting to seem skeptical of that which had become a source of pride, and confusion, but mostly pride, for him, “what was the SOL writing prompt?”
“I had to describe a time I was responsible,” he responded, seriously.
“Oh, that’s a good prompt,” I encouraged, “what did you write about?”
“I wrote about how I have to take care of my little brother,” he responded, eager to recount the tale that had earned him such a coveted accolade. “I described how, you know, when you are in the bathroom, I have to play with A, and how when you lock us out of the house and tell us to play outside, I entertain him even when he wants to go inside, and I included the time that we both came in covered in mud, and how you screamed at us because you had just cleaned the floor where we dropped our muddy clothes. Oh yeah, I got a bit carried away and wrote about how I feed A lunch and dinner when you don’t feel like giving us food,” he finished, proudly.
I wondered how long before Child Protective Services would come a knock, knock, knocking at our door.
“Um,” I began, trying to think of an appropriate response, “did you also mention how your parents disappear for weeks at a time, and how you have figured out how to drive the family car, so you can take your little brother to preschool?” I asked, hopefully getting my extremely literal middle son to see his story through my eyes.
“No one would believe that,” he laughed. “And the essay was 468 words long; when I began to run out of space, I wrote really, really small, so I could fit it all in.”
I couldn’t help but think of how Hank, my college boyfriend and eponymous hero of a chapter in Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage, once remarked that standardized tests merely measure the extent to which one could be controlled. I had always enjoyed thinking that there was perhaps some truth to his theory, but now my son’s stellar performance in a subject that, shall we say, had never been a strong one disproved that appealing notion for me once and for all. “Maybe,” my insightful sister had suggested, “they felt bad for him because of his, you know, the home life he presented, and the test scorers wanted to give him something, some shred of hope, that something good could come from his burden.” Uh, yes, perhaps…
And, so, my test weary friends, we find ourselves once again, in the cruelest of all months, “like a patient etherized upon a table, ” but that is another T.S. Elliot poem entirely.