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Strunk and White Would Nix English Standards' Vagueness

To the Editor:

My reaction to Jim Burke's Commentary ("National Standards for English: The Importance of Being Vague," April 3, 1996) was disbelief followed quickly by anger at this bland defense of the indefensible. In effect, Mr. Burke is saying: "Of course the English standards are vague. Of course they don't say anything specific or useful or even comprehensible. They're not supposed to be clear."

What sophistry. Our befuddled nation desperately needs precise educational aims formulated by intelligent teachers with the guts to explain themselves clearly. And in what realm of the curriculum is the need for precision greater than in English, which is still, despite determined efforts to chuck it onto the ash heap, our national language?

The connection between crisp language and clear thinking used to be self-evident. But no more, as Mr. Burke's piece and the infamous English Standards make clear. Now vagueness is virtue. Clarity is sinful.

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style has probably gone out of vogue. Once upon a time it was the English teacher's vade mecum. Would Strunk and White buy Mr. Burke's premise that "vagueness is essential"? Judge for yourselves:

"Be clear," chapter five of The Elements of Style advises, " ... although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. ... Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is a destroyer of life, of hope ... think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity; think of that ... and be clear!"

Good advice when it was written and good advice today. One would think that English teachers, of all people, would not have to be reminded of it.

Peter Hufstader
Bristol, R.I.

Calling Attention to Artwork That Was Too Close to Home

To the Editor:

As a school employee very near the site of the train/bus accident this past fall that killed schoolchildren in Fox River Grove, Ill., I'm disappointed by the illustration that accompanied your back-page Commentary of April 10, 1996 ("The Predictable Consequences of School Choice"). I encourage you to exercise better and more sensitive judgment in the future.

Ted Groat
Crystal Lake, Ill.

More on Assessment Reform: Measuring the Mona Lisa

To the Editor:

Michael Kean's response (Letters, March 27, 1996) to my Commentary ("Assessment Reform at a Crossroads," Feb. 28, 1996) raises some points I did not address but which educators should seriously ponder.

First, Mr. Kean raises the specter of "objectivity," which is, in fact, a myth. The only "objective" moment in multiple-choice testing is the scoring by machine. Content coverage, item choices, distractor design, "right answer" phrasing, and all the decisions about using tests and test results are "subjective." We must ask whether the reduction of learning to "one right answer" on narrowly reduced bits of information, or, at best, questions calling for highly limited inferences, is a price worth paying to wear the label "objective."

Second, Mr. Kean confuses the issue by equating "objective" with "norm-referenced." These terms have no inherent connection, not even in his usage. As for norm-referencing, if we want to assess whether our children are learning to high standards, it makes no sense to use tests that are designed to ensure that half the test-takers are below average.

Third, the testing industry has interpreted "valid and reliable" to mean what they want these terms to mean, like the Red Queen in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Most often, validity is reduced to reliability. Of course, it is good to know if our instruments are reliable, but it is most important to assess important learning, not just what is easily measured. We can reduce the Mona Lisa to the length and width of the canvas and measure it with great reliability, but so what?

Fourth, Mr. Kean emphasizes the need for consistent data. Yes, consistency is important, but it can be obtained at sufficient levels without ever using a norm-referenced, multiple-choice test. The issue then becomes, what is sufficient? The answer is primarily political. For example, if politics requires that we measure every student and then make high-stakes decisions, we will inevitably be forced to measure only that which is easily measurable. But if we want to help children learn more, to not reduce education to the easily measurable, we need to go in a very different direction. That's what the National Forum on Assessment's "Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems" calls for.

Finally, as Mr. Kean states, multiple measures are a necessary part of assessment. However, to have them does not require continued use of tools incompatible with high standards or high-quality learning for all students.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

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