Jewish World Review July 11, 2000/ 8 Tamuz, 5760
School essay watchdogs cannibalize our children
LET ME BE VERY CLEAR: My 15-year-old son is not a cannibal under psychiatric care.
However, he does have a droll, sometimes macabre, sense of humor, which explains why he
wrote a short one-act play involving a nervous psychiatrist and a witty cannibal engaged
in what we may infer was their final session.
The play, published in his school's year-end literary magazine, evoked amused smirks
from his peers and kudos from intelligent faculty who understand the concept of fiction.
More to the point, they understand the author.
Which is to say, context is everything. And context is what's missing from standardized
tests, which are now being read for more than punctuation and grammar. In New Jersey and
nationally, standardized tests that include writing samples are being "graded"
for their potential for psychological trouble.
Readers hired to consume as many as 200 essays a day are flagging samples that suggest
violence, abuse, drug use, depression or suicidal tendencies. Though the number flagged
are relatively few -- between dozens and 200 per year -- the practice has rankled parents
and watchdog groups concerned that government is taking another intrusive step into
private lives without appropriate justification or attendant outrage.
In one case involving a girl who wrote about murdering her mother, for example, the
reader's red flag turned out to be a red herring. The girl's tale was a work of fiction,
nothing more. Nevertheless, the test-reader's concern set off a chain-reaction leading to
the child's being questioned.
The flagging process works like this. First, three readers have to agree that an alert
is warranted. I like this part. It reminds me of how an editor and I once settled our
humor differences. When he didn't understand my bons mots, he carried my column around the
newsroom. If three others "got it," the joke escaped his editorial cudgel.
Similarly, if three readers think that there's trouble brewing in a child writer's
head, they notify Big Bro', who notifies the school superintendent, who has final say
about how to handle "the problem." (Imagine how Stephen King would have fared.)
Consider for a moment that you're the parent of a bright, creative child who writes
funny plays about, say, cannibals and shrinks. Suppose his work catches the eye of a hired
reader, not because it's clever or well-written or grammatically composed but because it's
not about dorks cavorting in daisy fields.
Now envision Big Bro' and the Super deciding without your knowledge that little Johnny
could use a chat with authorities. Or perhaps more testing. You see the problem.
On the other hand, what if another child writes about abuse she suffers at home and no
one notices. Would test readers in Colorado have flagged Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris?
The Columbine killers had a Web site describing their massacre, and no one noticed. One
of the boys had bomb parts in his bedroom, and no one noticed.
Maybe we would be grateful if a test reader had noticed that Klebold and Harris were
potentially dangerous. Intrusive or helpful?
You see the problem here, too.
The question may not be whether essays ought to be flagged when they spell trouble.
There's no harm noticing when a child begs attention. What galls is the assumption that
hired readers, government bureaucrats and administrators -- none of whom has sufficient
psychological training or contextual knowledge -- should have unfettered access to a
child's mind without so much as parental notification. We give accused murderers the
benefit of the doubt but not parents?
The thought makes the innocent fantasy of cannibalizing a nosy authority figure seem
rather appetizing, eh?
Hey, I'm joking! It's a bon mot! Go ahead, ask three other people. . . . Hey, wait a
minute, I need to make a call. No, wait,
JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.
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