The Associated Press news story in Monday’s newspaper was every bit as bewildering to me upon reading it the second time as it was on the first go-around, and I suspect that other readers may have been puzzled as well.
In a situation that had a sort of inmates-running-the-asylum feel to it, the results of a mandatory writing test for Maine eighth-graders had been tossed out by state education officials because of an unforgivable flaw in this feel-good age of no hurt feelings: The test’s lone question apparently had made some of the kids unhappy.
The professed malfunction allegedly triggered “false results” to the tune of a 78 percent failure rate, although those in charge were unable to say for sure why so many students’ efforts bombed.
The test, administed in March to 15,000 Maine students, directed them to write a persuasive essay supporting or refuting this statement, known as a prompt: “Television may have a negative impact on learning.” Instructions listed the writing skills that students should demonstrate, including spelling and punctuation, and also included a list of 12 facts — pro and con — for use in composing their essays.
“Kids got ticked off at the [question],” Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said. “In many cases, it was an emotional response rather than the intellectual exercise we were seeking, so it was not an accurate reflection of their writing skills.”
In a rare move, the Department of Education had withheld the test results when it released the latest Maine Educational Assessment scores in July. The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram broke the story after obtaining the writing results from the department under the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
“It would have been irresponsible for us to release data if that performance is based on a question that was unreliable,” Gendron explained. And embarrassing, as well, to announce that the test’s success rate was lower than the subterranean popularity index of President George W. Bush.
The questions are many. Where in the fine print of life’s guidelines is it written that indignant displeasure among students being tested is grounds for test results to be declared null and void? And how do you suppose it would have gone over had that been the stated reason for such a massive test failure in the era before education’s many new-age experiments with learning made possible such a strange kettle of fish?
Back in the halcyon days of yore, the best lame excuse for academic failure most of us could come up with was that the damn dog had eaten our homework again. Rare was the stalwart who would dare suggest he had blown a one-question test because he hadn’t particularly cared for the question.
Just what there is to get so upset about in the debatable proposition that television may have a negative impact on learning, I haven’t a clue. The more so when test instructions clearly gave students the choice of making a case either for or against the premise and provided the pros and cons for making their argument. Which is to say they weren’t exactly starting from scratch, with only a blank sheet of paper and a debilitating writer’s block for inspiration.
If students were so terribly “ticked off” at the test prompt, shouldn’t that have inspired a high percentage of them to turn in an abundance of impressive essays suggesting that television can have a positive effect on learning?
Show me an essayist goaded by serious indignation — what the Roman satirist Horace referred to as “a transient madness” — when he sits down to compose, and I’ll show you a writer likely to crank out an essay worth remembering.
Does anyone suppose that Martin Luther King wasn’t magnificently ticked off when he composed his historic “I Have a Dream” speech? That Gen. Douglas MacArthur wasn’t some old miffed when, nudged into retirement, he served up his classic “Old Soldiers Never Die” valedictory to a joint session of Congress?
Perhaps those test results weren’t so flawed, after all. Maybe the kids, mesmerized by the siren call of the many electronic communications gadgets available today, really are 78 percent deficient in the old-fashioned art of writing.
Just a thought.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.