Review of MAKING THE GRADES by Todd Farley
Todd Farley, author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry (PoliPoint Press, 2009) leads us through a world that is at once outside of teaching and its very lifeblood.
Our Dark Lord.
In Making the Grades, Farley chronicles his 15-year rise through the standardized testing industry (STI); from lowly day-scorer to muckity-muck with a big expense account to high-paid consultant. In 1994, Farley started scoring written tests for $7.75/hour in Iowa City, IA. Eventually he worked his way up to six-figures for part-time consulting work. The American Dream.
On his way up the ladder, Farley sees and describes for us countless examples of how the disorganization, ineptitude and just plain lies behind the scenes of the STI should seriously compromise our faith in its test results. He seems to hope and believe that, as he climbs the ladder, he will someday find justification or rationale for the shenanigans he’s witnessed on the way up. But he finds none; at least none that will make you feel good.
From bottom to top, Farley’s book is a story of short-sighted, often not-so-smart people, whose only motivation is to get these tests scored and make numbers look like what they need to look like. People wandering through a maze of ignorance, incompetence, and arbitrary rules that might change at any moment. Their jobs are to score tests. The rest of us use the results to collectively judge our schools, teachers, and children. And all of this takes place in order to produce huge profits for companies that score tests.
In addition to allowing daylight and fresh air to sweep into the stinky basement of the STI, Farley also gives us funny descriptions of people and recounts some seriously absurd and hilarious conversations about rubrics and data. I particularly enjoy the way he describes people. The characters that animate the ranks of the day-scorers reminded me of the people I used to line up with back when I was selling my own plasma for beer money.
Addicts. Foreigners. Slackers. Losers. Dummies and Dreamers.
From a teacher’s perspective this was an interesting and funny read because Farley uses all the same language and describes all the same problems with rubrics that teachers have. They box us in. How do I really know the difference between a 4 and a 5? A brilliant writer who didn’t follow the rubric but actually did quite a lot more will fail?
All this is frustrating for teachers, but we end up with the scores we need…am I right?
Farley and the people around him also did what they had to do to get the numbers they needed. The important difference between what Farley was doing and what we do in our classrooms is in distance and scale. Distance: If I tweak my interpretation of a rubric in the middle of grading a stack of papers, it’s with kids I talk to every day. Scale: As a teacher, if I create a horrible rubric or make a horrible decision about a rubric, I could really only marginally affect about 200 people at a time, at most.
Mr. Farley spells out for us how ineptitude and greed have together scored hundreds of millions of exams. A huge scale at long distance. Errors and misjudgments multiplied down the line; mistakes upon mistakes used to label children, teachers and schools; falsification of data. And maybe all this for a question that didn’t make sense in the first place.
I recommend it. It’s a serious book about an important issue that is written by somebody who is both knowledgeable and funny. What else do you want? Go buy it.
ps — I sort of like the book review idea for the blog. If you have something you’d like me to review, send me a copy. Maybe it’s your book or something you think didn’t get the exposure it should have or you missed when it first came out. (Here is a review from a while back on See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden.) If you send me something, there is no guarantee I will like it or review it on the blog. We’ll just have to wait and see if people start sending me books.
1031 Irving St. NE
Washington, DC 20017