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Obsessing over the PACT

YOSSARIAN and his friends hated the bomb line, because it would not move. The bomb line was the red ribbon on the map outside the intelligence tent, indicating the extent of the Allied advance. As long as the line remained below Bologna, they would still have to bomb Bologna, and they’d heard the flak there was horrific. Yet no matter how hard they stared at the bomb line, for hours on end, it would not move for them.

“I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”

That night, wrote Joseph Heller in Catch-22, “Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.” As a result, there was much celebration the next day, and the brass decided to give a medal to whoever had captured Bologna, if they could find him.

Only Bologna hadn’t been captured, and eventually they had to bomb it anyway.

Each year at about this time, when kids are getting out of school after weeks stressing over the PACT, I wonder whether we’ve become Yossarian, obsessing over the wrong thing.

The idea behind the bomb line was simply to indicate progress that would, or would not, be occurring regardless of whether the intelligence officer tacked a ribbon onto a map. The Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test was supposed to indicate progress that was, or was not, occurring in our schools.

All year, South Carolinians stare at that indicator, obsessing over it as though preparing for it, administering it, taking it, compiling the numbers, printing hundreds of thousands of report cards, sending them home with the kids and publishing charts would somehow achieve educational excellence in and of itself.

The final weeks of the school year are entirely taken up with the process. No more teaching; too busy testing.

I suspect that there are more than a few harried educators who, if they could, would love to be able to just sneak up and move a line on a map, so as to save the trouble. Many of them believe fervently that the whole process is ridiculous. Why not just let them teach, instead of going through this rigmarole? Just let them take Bologna — that’s hard enough — and let somebody else worry about lines on charts?

But it was easy to tell when Bologna was taken in 1945 — Americans in the streets, the Germans gone. Public education is more like Baghdad: Some on the ground see incremental progress, small steps against great odds. Those at a distance see nothing but failure, and demand benchmarks.

That’s where the PACT started, by the way — frustrated business leaders who believed in public education but saw it falling short for too many worked with “conservative” politicians who believed money was being wasted on the whole system.

The idea was a sound one: First, set standards of what we want kids to learn. Then, test whether schools are successfully teaching those things. To do that, you had to devise your own tests, because you had set your own standards.

The scores would be used to hold schools accountable for teaching the standards.

What we keep hearing is that they’re just “teaching the test.” If the test scores are nothing more than a red ribbon on a map, then “teaching the test” is a bad thing, an enormous waste of effort.

But if the test is truly based on the standards we want taught, then teaching the test means teaching the standards. And that’s what we want, isn’t it?

Several weeks back, I heard a child fretting about a test she would be taking in school the next day, and wanting to study for it, but not having a clear idea how.

When I heard the test was part of the PACT, I told her not to concern herself. Just relax, take the test. The hard work was behind her. Either she had learned all that stuff during the year up to that point, or she hadn’t. She wasn’t being tested; the school was. There was no grade. Something was being measured, that’s all — like dipping a thermometer into a river to check the temperature; there’s nothing the river could do about it one way or the other.

I’m not sure she believed me; what I said didn’t square with the anxiety that had been communicated to her at school.

That’s the trouble. The river knows it’s being measured, and has a huge stake in getting its temperature just right.

When I was a kid, any day we took standardized tests was a good day. Just color in the bubbles with a No. 2 pencil! It doesn’t affect your grade! Relax and do it!

And I did well on those tests (better than I did on the ones that counted, frankly). But the fate of my school didn’t depend on my score. The teacher didn’t care what percentile I fell into. She was just measuring the temperature; no sweat.

If Jim Rex can replace the PACT with something that is “no sweat,” more power to him. But I have my doubts. The stakes remain too high for the ones administering it, and they’re likely to stay that way. The political environment, from the state to the federal level, demands that schools account for themselves.

Still, if he can find a way to make the process less distracting while accomplishing the goals, that would be great. Spending the last few weeks of each school year fretting over the bomb line just isn’t healthy for anybody.

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