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HBO’s John Oliver Takes on Standardized Testing

By Mark Walsh — May 04, 2015 1 min read
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Comedian John Oliver has hit some some topics out of the park on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

His casting of nine dogs as U.S. Supreme Court justices last fall to create video to go with actual oral arguments audio was brilliant. And early this year, his segment on scholarships in college sports raised all the right questions about a broken system.

On this past Sunday night’s show, Oliver took on testing in K-12 schools. Ultimately, the 18-minute segment was more of a double than a home run.

“Standardized testing—the fastest way to terrify any child with just five letters outside of whispering the word ‘clown,’” Oliver said, as his video image showed the A through E of a bubble answer sheet.

The segment has some funny moments, such as clips of schools with test prep videos that can’t resist riffing off of pop songs—"Test Taker Face,” “Test Me Maybe,” and “The Test (What Does the Test Say?)”

As evidence of the overemphasis on testing, Oliver shows clips from local news about opt-outs of tests related to the Common Core State Standards and instructions for test administrators in an Ohio guide about what to do when a test-taker vomits into his or her test booklet.

Oliver hits presidential candidate Barack Obama for a speech to the National Education Association that criticized overtesting (“That man knew how to pander to teachers,” Oliver says), compared with a President Obama whose policies encouraged the common core and its tests.

And Oliver is most critical of test publishers, particularly Pearson, which is compared to Time-Warner Cable. “Either you’ve never had an interaction with them and don’t care, or they have ruined your _____ life.”

(This would be a good place for a reminder that “Last Week Tonight” is on HBO, and Oliver sometimes uses the F-word and adult themes.)

Over at This Week in Education, Alexander Russo notes that Oliver used a fairly old example of an outrageous test question (an apparently infamous set of questions called “The Pineapple and the Hare,” featuring a talking pineapple.)

Like Alexander, I agree standardized testing is a topic worthy of skewering on TV. But Oliver, who specializes in finding the humor and ironies in complex public-policy topics, might have done better by narrowing his topic to more recent material regarding common core and its test.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.