Opinion
Assessment Commentary

Grade Daniel’s Exam

By Jonathan Zimmerman — June 07, 2000 3 min read
McGeorge Bundy: Harvard University dean, national security advisor to JFK, Ford Foundation president, and College Board exam protester.

In 1935, a precocious 16-year-old named McGeorge Bundy graduated summa cum laude from the Groton School and took the College Board’s English examination. A forerunner of today’s achievement test, the exam asked Bundy to write on one of two essay topics: “How did you spend your summer vacation?” and “My favorite pet.”

Bundy refused. Instead, he wrote an essay attacking the test questions as irrelevant and suggesting several better ones.

Annoyed by Bundy’s youthful arrogance, his first College Board reader failed him. But the next two readers were so impressed by the essay that they overrode the first evaluator, awarding Bundy a perfect score of 100.

McGeorge Bundy would go on to become the dean of arts and sciences at Harvard University, the national security adviser to John F. Kennedy, and the president of the Ford Foundation. Whatever their views of Bundy’s politics—especially of his role in escalating America’s war in Vietnam—nobody ever found reason to doubt his literary or analytic skills. The College Board got that part right.

This spring, the Massachusetts board of education faced a similar dilemma. In April, about 300 students boycotted its 10th grade English exam. Under the state’s new regulations, all students will have to pass the test by next year in order to graduate.

The Massachusetts test is part of the latest craze in American education reform. By 2003, 26 states plan to require pupils to pass at least one standardized test. So all of us should be carefully monitoring the events in Massachusetts and elsewhere—not just the student resistance, but also the way state officials respond to it.

Some of the Bay State’s young protesters simply refused to sit for the exam, which asked them to discuss a “supporting character” in their favorite novel. But others submitted alternative essays about the test itself, condemning it as a cookie-cutter instrument that could never gauge their true abilities.

‘Why should all students be assessed the same way?’

Daniel Elitzer,
Great Barrington student

“Different people learn in different ways,” wrote Daniel Elitzer, a student from Great Barrington, in the essay he submitted. “Why should all students be assessed the same way?”

It is an excellent question, clearly superior to the one that the state exam asked. So the state should read and grade Daniel’s answer, just as the College Board evaluated McGeorge Bundy more than half a century ago.

The “standards” debate in America has been badly miscast as a battle between people who want standards and people who don’t. But no serious educator doubts the need to assess student learning in schools. The real issue has always been how to assess this learning.

Why shouldn’t students like Daniel be allowed to write on the topics of their choice— including the examination process? After all, supporters of standardized exams often claim that the tests measure “critical thinking.”

Wouldn’t a test that required students to ask and answer their own questions provide a better barometer of this skill than a state-mandated topic would?

Indeed, Daniel’s very willingness to challenge his state’s test suggests that he’s already well- versed in “critical thinking.” Rather than penalizing him, the state should reward him by evaluating his exam. That would earn high marks for Massachusetts, whatever grade it ultimately assigned to Daniel Elitzer.


Jonathan Zimmerman teaches the history of education at New York University in New York City. He is the author of Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880-1925.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2000 edition of Education Week as Grade Daniel’s Exam

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