The Monday morning newspaper carried a report about a new study suggesting that watching just nine minutes of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon show on television can cause short-term attention and learning problems in 4-year-olds.
Three days later, a front-page story reported that Scholastic Assessment Test reading scores for the high school Class of 2011 were the lowest on record — down three points, to 497 out of a possible 800 — and combined reading and math scores fell to their lowest point since 1955.
So far, I’ve not read of anyone attempting to make a connection between sagging test scores and any dumbing-down effect that “SpongeBob SquarePants” programming might have had on the kids’ budding attention spans a dozen years ago. Nor has the blame yet fallen on former President George W. Bush, hard to believe though that may be.
The College Board, which released the test scores Wednesday, said the results reflect the record size and diversity of the pool of test takers. As more students aim for college and take the exam it tends to drag down average scores, a spokesman said.
Debate concerning education standards, curriculum, testing and the like has seemingly been with us forever, as a check of most any daily newspaper morgue will show, and likely will be around for a long time to come. One idea that periodically surfaces is for school districts to require graduating high school students to pass a basic skills test in the three R’s — readin’ and ’riting and ’rithmetic — before they can march off the graduation stage, diploma in hand, ready to take on the world.
When the talk turns to such things, I am reminded of a telephone conversation I had a decade ago with a Bangor doctor who had rung me up to suggest that exit-testing of high school graduates might be an idea whose time had come. While awaiting that academic breakthrough the man had devised a simple exam of his own, which he called the Emperor Hirohito Test, to determine on which side of the generational knowledge gap people fall.
The inspiration for the test came in June 2000, the doctor said, when he made an off-hand comment to a 50-year old patient about the recent death of Emperor Hirohito’s 97-year-old widow, the Empress Dowager Nagako. The patient, a blank look in her eyes, asked, “Who is Emperor Hirohito?”
It wasn’t that the patient framed her question in the present tense that bothered the man — the emperor having passed on well before the empress. Rather, he said, it was the realization that the name Hirohito rang no bell for a person who was pushing 40 in 1989 when the historical figure who had been emperor of Japan since 1926 died.
Wondering how fellow Americans of a more tender age might fare when asked to identify Hirohito, my caller conducted a nonscientific survey and found that most respondents flunked spectacularly. A random test of nurses in the 20-something to 30-something range as he made his rounds at a Bangor hospital produced the same result, the same bewilderment when the question was put to them.
Not only did the emperor have no clothes, his name recognition wasn’t so great, either.
And so the bottom line may be this: If you can identify Emperor Hirohito without resorting to Internet help from Google, it could confirm your old-fogy status as a proud product of no-nonsense teaching back in the day. Chances are you can also name the capitals of all 50 states, diagram a sentence, identify the hypotenuse of a right triangle and recite the opening line of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, the material having been drilled into your fact-packed little head almost from Day One.
Mandatory testing before setting you free from high school would likely have been a waste of everyone’s time.
A college kid I saw on a recent quiz show probably should have been exit-tested before being turned loose from high school, though. Asked to identify Laos on a map of the world, he marched to the board with great confidence and plunged his pushpin deep into the heart of Newfoundland.
It’s probably just as well that the lad wasn’t asked a question about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He might have replied that he wasn’t aware that the dude had moved from his Washington residence.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.