Peter Wood

For most college students the semester is over.  Final exams are done, and in some cases really done.  At Harvard, sophomore Eldo Kim was so eager to reschedule one of his final exams that he emailed a false warning that bombs were set to go off in four campus buildings, including the one where he was about to sit for his exam in GOV 1368, The Politics of American Education. He now faces up to five years in prison, which will give him lots of time to work out the answers. 

Exam jitters afflict a great many students, though it is hard to see exactly why this would be so, especially at Harvard where the median grade is now an A-.  Was Mr. Kim tormented by the prospect that he might get a B? 

Exams do not enjoy the happiest of reputations.  Ever since No Child Left Behind came along with its recipe of school improvement through a relentless regimen of standardized tests, we have been warned with increasing urgency of the dark side of that diet.  Teachers will “teach to the test” rather than awaken in their students a love of learning for its own sake.  And schools, afraid of the consequences of “high-stakes testing,” will be prompted to cheat.  Indeed, some have.  We have stories of teachers stuffing children’s stockings with the right answers and other schools setting up little Santa’s workshops of elves with erasers intent on improving the computerized score sheets.

The new game in town, the Common Core K-12 State Standards, promises still more and more standardized testing, and this time it comes with reindeer like SBAC and PARCC, private testing organizations that might as well be stabled at the North Pole for all that anyone knows of their inner workings. For the curious, SBAC is the “Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium,” not to be confused with the Smart Balance Buttery Spread; and PARCC is the “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers,” not to be confused with Parkay Margarine.  The oleaginous names for these semi-secret testing organizations are no doubt a coincidence but they do suggest the spreading film of bureaucratic control over American education.

“Assessment” is what we call testing when we want to assure everyone that it won’t be so bad. All toys; no coal.

As nervous as “high-stakes testing” makes us, many of us actually enjoy low-stakes testing.  Think of the enduring popularity of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle and acrostics. The crossword puzzle, as it happens, was invented 100 years ago this month, by Arthur Wynne, a writer for the New York World.  Thank you, Mr. Wynne.  NPR’s Weekend Edition series “The Puzzlemaster Presents” with Will Shortz has been on air since 1987.  Recently Pajamas Media advertised its new venture, the Freedom Academy, by posting a series of history quizzes with questions by Victor Davis Hanson. 

I am among those who can seldom resist a voluntary quiz, and I learned long ago that the only thing better than taking one is creating one.  The art of writing a good quiz is not to set out to baffle the quiz-taker but to amuse and entertain him, while slyly leading him into new territory.  That’s why we’ve been running a series of daily quizzes on this website.  Have you tried “Time Will Tell,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “The Art of Lying,” “The Stars Are Brightly Shining,” and “Impediments”?  It has been a test for my staff members to come up with playful knots for readers to untie.  Of course, our ulterior motive is to snare first-time readers to hang around and read NAS’s 400-page report, “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” and other such sugarplums.

A quiz is a bit like a present sitting wrapped and ribboned beneath the tree.  It tantalizes.  Heavy like a book?  Light like a sweater?  Rattling like a Lego set?  And quizzes to an adult have a certain nostalgic quality.  They bring back the time when it mattered which was longer, the Amazon or the Yangtze.  Gone are the snows of yesteryear along with knowledge of geography, but fondness for knowing things lingers…Every child is left behind somewhere in the grown-up, who secretly pines for the days when The Wonderbook of Knowledge opened up on vistas never known to Wikipedians. 

Multiple choice quizzes, of course, have low standing in the world of serious learning.  They are to the essay exam what nursery rhymes are to The Aeneid.  Still they have the charm of simplicity and they can evoke potent memories.  As a holiday gift to readers, we offer this final quiz. Since the comical American Studies Association is much in the news, my theme is American comics.  


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