Sunday, March 27, 2011


Recently someone was telling me about the local elementary school system, and how there's a reading program in place. The children are filed into the library, given "age-appropriate" books, told to read them, and then are sat down at a computer to do a comprehension test on the book they just read.

I was aghast. "Why?!" I asked.

"Well, so we can make sure they understand what they read," answered my partner in conversation.

"But why does it matter?"

She looked at me very strangely. "So we can tell what reading level they're at."

"But why does it matter what reading level they're at? Why does it matter if they understand what they're reading? Aren't they supposed to be reading for pleasure? What would you think if someone came and gave you a comprehension test on everything you read?" I was trying to be polite in the midst of my horror, but even the basic questions are considered rather vulgar, like you're questioning the good intentions of professional educators towards their charges. Which, of course, is exactly what I'm doing. This sounds like a program right out of 1984.

I couldn't stop. "If someone tested me on every book I read, you can believe it that I wouldn't pass their exam. When I'm reading for pleasure, it's just pleasure. I let the book wash over me, take two or three points of interest away with me, and I'm done with it. This program seems designed to cure kids of ever wanting to read again."

"But how would we give them marks, if we don't have any way to test what they know?" She looked completely bewildered at this point. She works in a school - I don't suppose this sort of conversation is welcomed in the staff room.

"Who needs their test results?" I asked in return. "We've got a whole society of people who don't know who they are without a piece of paper to rate their abilities and tell them what they're fit for. I hate testing kids. I think it's a lie."

She looked off, and down. "Yeah, I hate testing too. But how do you get around it?"

From there the discussion veered into homeschooling, unschooling, and the parents of schooled children refusing to participate in PATs. And eventually we found ourselves at:

"But if you don't have a degree, how do you ever get ahead in life?"

I smiled. "I guess that depends on what you mean by 'get ahead'," I answered.

She laughed. "You never have a straight answer for anything, do you? It's always more questions!"

Amen. Always more questions!

If you want a degree so you can get ahead, you need to be asking yourself what 'get ahead' means, and whether that degree is really a means to get there. Or if, in fact, it's a huge debt to buy you some shaky academic credibility or a temporary ego boost. Or if you're just doing it because it's the thing to do, and you never questioned that assumption. But for goodness' sake, ask questions! Ask questions about everything! Question yourself and your motives, question your society and its motives, question everything! These are the 'examinations' that matter.


CG said...

Amen sister.

sledpress said...

I once dreamed that I was filing into a huge examination room in which my entire future would be determined, and that the examination questions were scrolled by on a screen at a steady pace, meaning I had to give the exam my undivided attention.

Unfortunately, just as I began the exam, I had an idea for a story which I knew would escape me if I didn't write it right away.

I wrote the story.

It was still there when I woke up, and I *really* wrote it. Maybe I'll post it some time.

I don't know what happened to the me in the dream.

Hellena Post said...

Absobloodylutely!!! What a great conversation to have, and record, and what a great point to get across!! Question everything!! Love it.

Madcap said...

CG - I thought you'd be able to relate!

Sled - What a fabulous dream. Do post the story , I'd love to read it.

Hellena - I have questions about my questions... Specifically, I wonder if some people are just far more prone to wondering about things (the background colour of their minds), or if it's a basic human trait that gets suppressed by being told that your questions are idiotic. I get pretty impatient with people who don't seem to ask questions that I think aren't optional, but perhaps that's unreasonable of me. I don't know...

Deb said...

That sounds a lot like a program at our school called Accelerated Reader. Kids earn points for reading books and taking the tests, and they are rewarded with an incentive, such as a movie, if they attain a certain point total. As I see it, the kids that read well and enjoy it will be rewarded for what they do already, while the ones who struggle with it will be further discouraged by not reaching the incentive. My kids have fallen into the first category, although Calvin saw through the whole incentive thing and quit participating in fourth grade. I'm probably labeled a "contrary" parent at school by some, but my kids know my opinions on certain school programs. ;)

Madcap said...

Your kids are lucky that their mum models independent thought - and I know they're free spirits in their own rights, too. And that's so true, that it manipulates the ones who find it easy, and alienates the ones for whom reading is already a challenge.

Seonaid said...

Wow. I hope someday I'm as good at dealing with these teachers as you are. I tend to just go along with things because it's just not worth the fight... even when it is.

Madcap said...

Morning Seonaid - Well, sometimes I engage, and sometimes I don't. It depends on the situation, and the person in front of me. But yes, I do get into it quite often. I've got a boy who learns and does things asynchronously, and I think a lot about my potential grand-children, and how I would hate to see them fall afoul of these entrenched, self-serving systems. Maybe I'm engaging in prophylactic educational evangelization. ;-) There are so many things that are taken for granted about learning that are just bureaucratic codswallop and artificial hoop-jumping! Viva la resistance!