I've been teaching high school English in Illinois for over 20 years, but have only recently come to believe that I am complicit in a fraud. For nearly a decade, I have dutifully prepared college-bound students for the rigors of the ACT and the Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature and Composition exam. Even though I believe there's an undue emphasis on testing in our current school culture, I have considered this preparation an important part of my job because these tests are important to my students both academically and financially. But I question what, if anything, the new Common Core test—which will include writing components graded in part by computer algorithms—will have to offer my students.
I am not alone in my skepticism about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, which rolls out next year. Criticism has come from the left, led by Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education who has become one of Common Core's most vehement opponents. Conservative pundits like Glenn Beck have railed against it, too. Even Louis C.K. has an informed opinion.
My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014
It's not hard to guess what another great American satirist would have had to say about the Common Core curriculum. Mark Twain had an abiding concern with education, and he treated formal schooling derisively in his writings. His 1917 autobiography describes his education in the mid-19th century, at the dawn of the public school movement; his acerbic portrayal of Mr. Dobbins in the school scenes of Tom Sawyer is based on Twain’s remembrances of his own teachers and experiences. In one scene, set on Examination Day, Twain mocks the vacuous nature of writing instruction as he shows Tom Sawyer's classmates reading their essays aloud: “A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of ‘fine language’; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out.” The examinations come to an abrupt halt when Tom and his friends hide in the garret, lower a cat on a string, and watch it snatch the wig off the teacher's head.