Slippery Standards

The first college-level standardized tests, forerunner to the modern SAT, were given on this day in 1901. Standardized testing is now prevalent throughout the American educational system, as is the unabated debate over its fairness, efficacy, and attendant issues — the No Child Left Behind Act, charter schools, and the like. Todd Farley’s Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry (2009) is unequivocal — he argues that “the development and scoring of large-scale standardized tests is nothing but a theater of the absurd” — but it is entertaining as well as polemical. For fifteen years an employee at companies hired to do the testing, Farley uses a hands-on approach to reveal how apparently black-and-white test questions can easily and against all best intentions turn any shade of gray.

One of many problems, says Farley, is that “a rubric that might work great with one teacher and twenty students often ended up like a Laurel and Hardy routine by the time it was being used by 20 scorers to assess 100,000 student responses.” One typically slippery slope concerned a test item based on a children’s story titled “The Lion and the Squirrel.” Recognizing that the story was essentially a reworking of Aesop’s more famous “The Lion and the Mouse,” there was an executive decision to be lenient regarding animals and spelling. The evaluators not only decided to accept “mouse” for “squirrel,” but to accept for “squirrel” such deviant spellings as “sqrle” and “skerril,” which led to accepting not just “mouse” but “mice” and “moose.” For the frontline workers with the red pens, this was like crossing the Rubric-con:

Eventually we were also crediting “rat” and “rates” (c’mon, how different is that from a mouse to a 10-year-old?)…. And finally, we ended up accepting, well, “any rodent,” because what were both squirrels and mice (and rats and beavers), except “nibbling mammals of the order Rodentia.” In other words, if a student said one of the protagonists of “The Lion and the Squirrel” was a lemming, a shrew, or a hamster (all rodents, which we knew after my supervisor’s visit to the Iowa City Public Library), that answer was on the way to earning full credit. All the student had to do to get maximum points for that response was to also identify the other lead character as a “lion,” and by “lion,” naturally, I mean “lion” or “tiger” or “leopard” or “panther” or “bobcat”….

The following year, after looking at the rubric that had turned the story of “The Lion and the Squirrel” into “The Panther and the Hamster,” a new supervisor had her own testy questions, beginning with “What’s all this crap about rodents?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at