English: 80s-era North Country public education proves sufficient
"Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another."
— Capt. Benjamin L. Willard, "Apocalypse Now"
Out of the newsroom for a day with a sore foot, I returned to work last Wednesday to find myself nominated in absentia to take the 11th-grade English proficiency sample test and ruminate what New Hampshire students are in for under Common Core standardized testing.
Before I get into it, you need to understand a little bit about what Common Core is. To a childless cynic such as I, Common Core is about teaching kids what will be on the test and then testing them on it, which I suppose is one way to catch up to Finland. If Mr. Hirsch at Berlin High School had done likewise back in '82, I'd surely have banked better than a B in English my junior year. So as a disclaimer, not having had the indoctrination of a Common Core-based curriculum, the sample test I took can in no way measure the effectiveness of this new approach to teaching.
The sample test is composed of 37 questions; 30 are multiple choice, with most worth a point each; seven are of the short-answer or essay variety and worth two points.
Better than half the test involves reading or listening to an essay and then answering questions about it. These were surprisingly political in nature — the health benefits of meditation, sustainable fashion, international cooperation in a new era of space exploration, contributions of African-American architect Paul Revere Williams to affordable housing, and Democrats wanting to let anyone who pleases vote in a New Hampshire election. OK, maybe I'm paraphrasing that last one a bit.
Unable to save the test, I had to correct it myself and so earned an easy 14 points acing the essay questions in a triumph of the willfully subjective. But that's fair; whoever grades these is either going to take the time to judge a stack of disparate arguments, or they're going to make it home for dinner on time. Not both.
On the more objective multiple-choice questions, I scored 29 out of 30, and I'll put an asterisk on the one the key claims I whiffed. That question's author and I will just have to agree to disagree whether the point of the long essay on sustainable fashion was keeping penguins alive or children out of Third World sweatshops. I figure the world will run out of penguins long before it runs out of poor parents assenting to their kid manning an industrial steam press, so I must lack a Common Core understanding of what "sustainable" means.
Don't let my faux score fool you, the test is not easy. I took it off the clock and scratched my head on a few questions, going against my own redneck sensibilities with answers predicated on a mental picture of my interlocutor — say someone who trades a perfectly fine Volvo for a spankin' new Prius to help save the planet. Does that make me literate or just politically savvy?
I do think kids with ADD are going to have a hard time with this test. I took it in the late afternoon when low blood sugar leaves me with the patience of a Saint Bernard at supper time. Reading the essays in full was a slog.
I can't tell you whether the test is a fair measure of how effectively teachers and schools educate, I'm not qualified. My only real conclusion is I'm glad adult life requires more answers to multiple choice questions than to essays.
If you'd like to find out whether you're smarter than an 11th-grader, take the practice test yourself. You can find it here: unionleader.com/test
Carl Perreault is director of unionleader.com, newhampshire.com, the nh365.org events calendar network, and nhangle.com, the most comprehensive aggregation of links to Granite State information.