The Meaning of a Word is its Use in the Language.
Over at the Daily Beast, smart, Ivy League educated, professional writer Matt Collette discusses his failure to pass the new GED. The new GED, it turns out, has been privatized and made more difficult, apparently in an attempt (surprise, surprise) to increase the profits of the privatizing entity.
Part of the reason the GED is so hard is that it tests what you learn in high school, and most of what you learn in high school simply does not come up again in real life. Today I mostly use math to figure out the tip at a restaurant or divide bills among my roommates. And while I write for a living, I don’t often talk about specific verb tenses or perform close readings on 19th-century literature…
…Other parts of the test I just disagreed with. I got a grammar question wrong because I put the title of a TV show in quotes, but didn’t also underline it. (Seriously, no one would write “Master Chef” like this, especially not underlined, yet that’s what the answer sheet on my practice test called for.) And while I, an adult writer working in the real world, can argue about something like that with my editor, there’s no back and forth with the test. Your answer is right or it’s wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I never really understood standardized tests of grammar. It’s always seemed obvious to me that language is about communication. Since communication depends on context, how can you standardize it? And how can you then foist upon test-takers a standardized test of something which is essentially unstandardizable?
Indeed, facility with language is important for advancement in society. It seems to me that the best way to gain facility with language is to get out there and communicate – with different kinds of people, using different words, using different media. Forking over hard-earned cash to a for-profit testing company in order to be drilled on arbitrary and irrelevant “rules” does not seem like a good way to gain facility with language. In fact, we study the writers we do study in our English classes precisely because they transcended rules and found new ways to communicate (see caption to image above).
Yet, per Collette:
Nearly four hours into the test, I switched into science and social studies, 90-minute tests that covered things like photosynthesis and the Louisiana Purchase. These tests ultimately felt like more of an afterthought, which aligns pretty well with the Common Core, which stresses math and English over other disciplines.
Using a standardized test of language as a checkpoint for allowing motivated people to progress in our world is a terrible idea. Assessing communicative ability is really what written applications and interviews are for. Tests of metaskills, like the ability to describe language in terms relevant to only grammarians and testing authorities, is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which we should not put.