Greetings from the Seventh Annual “Best Pet Is Cat” Awards


As birds twitter cheerfully outside my kitchen window while the sun blazes well into the evening, it’s clear that once again, spring is upon us. Seedlings are sprouting up from the soil, blossoms are budding on my fruit trees, and all over America, teenage minds are turning to that most hallowed of youthful pursuits: standardized testing.

For those of you who don’t know, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) is this week. Every March, every tenth grader in California spends roughly eight hours over two days being tested in English (reading and writing) and math. Those who don’t pass are able to take the test again in subsequent years, but no one gets a diploma without passing this thing.

The test was put into law in 1999 in order to “ensure every student had the skills and knowledge necessary for college or meaningful work, as well as to raise expectations and results for all California children.”

Let’s try a little test here: Everyone reading this who went to college, raise your hand.

Okay, good. Everyone still with me?

Now keep your hand up if your course work involved a lot of multiple choice tests comprised of random material completely unrelated to your major field of study.

Okay, I saw a few hands go down there. But hear me out.

If you’ve still got your hand up, keep it up if your post-secondary studies hinged up hastily handwritten single-draft essays with tasks as insipid and diverse as finally bringing that age-old and contentious dog vs. cat debate to a meaningful close or jotting down half-remembered facts from that illustrated biography of Jackie Robinson you read in fourth grade in order to demonstrate how the man had a lasting impact on our culture.

So, college. Random multiple choice tests. Insipid on-the-spot essays. Hand still up? Didn’t think so.

Now, let’s give the CAHSEE the benefit of the doubt. The law says college OR meaningful work.

Here’s a multiple choice test of my own devising. (hint: if you’re unsure of the answer, try using the process of elimination to root out irrelevant answers)

1. Do you work?

a) yes

b) no

c) duck

d) fish

2. If you answered (a) to question #1, which element of the CAHSEE applies most to your line of work?

a) answering multiple choice questions for fun and profit

b) converting decimals to fractions for fun and profit

c) writing barely coherent essays for fun and profit

d) purple

3. Essay question: Many individuals define themselves by the work they do. What makes work meaningful? Is meaningful work important to your community? Do you consider your work meaningful? Why or why not?

Listen: The CAHSEE, like every multiple choice test out there, tests one thing: the student’s ability to take the test.

That’s not quite true.

Standardized tests are also astounding indicators of whether a student has issues with anxiety, ate a healthy breakfast, got enough sleep last night, has an undiagnosed learning disorder, speaks English at home, or, you know, is poor. Of course, the remedy for any of these issues is to pat the student on the back and say, “chin up, dry those tears, better luck next year.”

Full disclosure time: I’ve got a long history with the CAHSEE. Back in 2003, I worked as a scorer for the essay portion of what I believe was the test’s inaugural run. The essay prompt famously asked students declare an allegiance in the pet war and defend their choice of winner in the competition for best animal companion ever. In the hundreds and hundreds of essays I read that spring and summer, not a single contained a single academic thought. Some were neater, better written, funnier, more thoughtful, more correctly punctuated. Some were in Spanish (0 points). Some were blank (0 points). My favorites, however, were the dozens made up of just a single memorable line: “Animals”; “When you are dead, dog take you to the underworld”; “In dog we trust.” Perhaps most sublime was the essay a fellow reader shared with me (against the rules!) “Best pet is cat.” Of course, each of these gems received 0 points.

I knew something was wrong when I was grading those essays all those years ago. Too many were failing and those that passed weren’t any good anyway.

Years later I know. The standards the CAHSEE tests are at best only tangentially related to the exploration, discovery, and debate that should go on in a healthy learning environment. Still, for the last four months, my sophomores have spent roughly two out of every five hours in English class preparing for the CAHSEE. I teach it like a game to beat. We drill process of elimination like counting cards in Vegas, anything to give you a tiny advantage over the house. We talk odds and percentages, skimming and scanning to scam the test.

Let’s call the CAHSEE what it is: a border fence, a filter against undesirables. Because calling it a tool of education is insulting to educators and insulting to students. If it’s doing anything besides weeding out misfits, I do not see how.

My students took the English portion on Tuesday. By the end of the four hours, they were out of their minds with stress, snapping at anyone who made a sound.

This morning I’m proctoring the math section and trying to think positive. At least if they fail this part, someone else’ll get blamed.

Thursday, I’m bringing all of my students cookies Kat made them. We’ll have a snack and maybe finally get down to learning something worthwhile.

About Mark

It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. -A.N. Whitehead
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