Why Literature Matters: Part 1, or What Trollope Says About Assessment

I’m not sure I want to know anyone in this industry who hasn’t at some time or another experienced a crisis of conscience. Humans seek meaning in our work, and unless we are psychopaths, we generally prefer doing good rather than evil. When we have a choice that doesn’t much inconvenience us.


Why do our consciences rail at us during the dark nights of our souls? You know the answer. You’ve thought the answer yourself, or you’ve even asked me the question to elicit the answer, whether you be a friend, family member, or complete stranger sitting next to me on Southwest flight 1207 out of LAX.

If you are a parent or a teacher or a friend of a parent or of a teacher, or if you know and care about a child or if you ever think about what you read in the newspaper and magazines or consider what you see on the news, you know something about K-12 assessment and you probably have opinions about it, opinions that–please forgive the plain speaking, and this is through no fault of your own–are most likely ill-informed. Being as that there are few industries so shrouded in mystery and that excite so little enthusiasm and generate so little va va voom, so little sparkle as that of educational assessment publishing.

However, you probably understand that any conscious (let alone conscientious) person who creates tests for a living has concerns about the quality of the tests, the purposes for which they are used, and the consequences when they are put to use.

A potential salve to our consciences lies in 10 Reasons Why Assessments Make the World a Better Place (compiled by John Kleeman at Questionmark and sent to me by my colleague Frank Brockmann of CenterPoint–you see, we all three of us are soldiers in the same militia).

And so I, dutiful foot soldier that I am, armed with the twin purposes of promoting greater understanding of assessment and its implementation and consequences, and of reminding all of us why the study of literature is crucial to developing higher level thinking skills (and character!), will, with the aid of my betters, review these 10 Reasons Why Assessments Make the World a Better Place.

Today, let’s tackle Reason #1: Assessments give equality of opportunity.

The idea that assessment ensures equality of opportunity is one that Victorian writer (and career civil servant) Anthony Trollope treats humorously in The Three Clerks (Chapter 3: The Internal Navigation) and seriously in his autobiography:
But in regard to the absolute fitness of the young men selected for the public service [which selection was made based on examination results–ed.], I doubt whether more harm has not been done than good. And I think that good might have been done without the harm. The rule of the present day is, that every place shall be open to public competition, and that it shall be given to the best among the comers. I object to this, that at present there exists no known mode of learning who is best, and that the method employed has no tendency to elicit the best. That method pretends only to decide who among a certain number of lads will best answer a string of questions, for the answering of which they are prepared by tutors, who have sprung up for the purpose since this fashion of election has been adopted.

Italics mine.

SAT tutoring, anyone? How much does that cost these days, anyway? Who is most able to afford SAT tutoring? How does that disparity affect this playing field that the test is supposed to be leveling?

And here is what Trollope has to say about similar kinds of narrowly targeted test preparation:


Italics mine, yet again.

What Trollope says about himself is that he would certainly have performed poorly on any such public examination, but if he had been rejected based on his poor performance, the government would have just as certainly lost “a valuable public servant.” That he was valuable is incontestable; every biographical (and autobiographical) account I’ve read indicates that Trollope applied himself to his career as devotedly, industriously, and with as much competence as he did to his writing. (You may not know that Trollope wrote a gazillion books, and that he rose every morning at 5 dark-thirty to write for two hours before he began his work day at his day job.)

Which ultimately means that Reason #1 doesn’t really reassure me that I am making the world a better place, one test question at a time.

(In addition, a highly inconvenient truth of this industry is that the soundness of the test cannot always be taken for granted, and an unsound test, a test that is constructed in absence of best practices, should not be relied upon to produce data that is itself reliable. I predict this truth will apply to all ten reasons.)

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