Unpopular Opinion: Standardized Tests on Literature May Actually Teach You Something About Literature
By Cate Pitterle
The timer reads 35:26. I am not quite halfway through the test. My pencil scribbles faster than my brain, annotating the poem before me--written in 1607, maybe it’s Shakespeare?—and I can barely read my handwriting. Once I struggle through the thick lengths of iambic pentameter, I’m slicing through questions that I can barely understand with answer choices that rarely make sense.
I get a question where the only answer choices are metonym, synecdoche, analogy, extended metaphor, assonance. I only know what two of those things are, and even then I’m just guessing on the “extended” part of extended metaphor.
I circle extended metaphor without hesitation. My eyes fly to the next question.
This one asks me to analyze the passage. I’ve never understood Shakespeare in my life; this is a test of my mettle. The poem addresses a mirror, so I assume it’s about vanity (oh, could I have been more wrong). Question after question fills my head until my ears are ringing. I stop noticing my surroundings. Everything is a blur except the black-inked words in front of me.
The next time I look up, the timer reads 05:56. I am ten questions from the end of the test. I circle answers as fast as my stubby pencil can manage, letting it fall with a clatter four seconds before the alarm sounds.
In short, my first interaction with the SAT Literature practice book did not go well.
What does a standardized test actually teach you, or even test you on? Does the SAT Subject Test in Literature, as well as other similar tests, accurately judge potential English majors on their fitness for the field?
Standardized tests, and literature-focused ones in particular—from SAT Subject Tests to AP Lang to whatever it is IB students take (sorry guys)—don’t measure your aptitude to be a writer. They don’t even measure your skill as a reader. They measure your ability to produce an answer that the test proctors want to hear.
Before we dive into that, let me get into some background.
The SAT Literature test in particular, as well as some other select literature tests, divide their questions into what I categorize as three basic types:
1. Literary terms. This is the extended metaphor question from before. They pick out a line of the passage, maybe a paragraph or stanza, and ask you to identify the main technique the author is using.
2. Basic or surface meaning. These are the questions that ask you to take a line, section, or even the entirety of a passage and explain what it’s saying. When Shakespeare says, “I have seen roses demasked,” what is he actually saying in modern English? I don’t know, but you’ll probably have to figure it out for a question like this.
3. Deeper meaning. These are the questions about theme. They tend to be the harder questions, and the more controversial ones. I’ll get into that more below.
To start, let’s analyze a (fake, but that’s okay) example.
A creative nonfiction piece talks about a little girl’s fear of a dark, inescapable void; she can’t sleep because of it, and spends every night sitting on her bed, staring at this darkness.
To you, an insomniac, the story is about a girl’s struggle with the disorder. The ambiguity of the void allows you to imagine this interpretation. In fact, your interpretation of the void as insomnia makes the story richer for you.
However, the test-makers disagree. Let’s say you get a question like this:
1. What is the main point of this passage?
a. The little girl can’t sleep.
b. The little girl is afraid of the dark.
c. The little girl lost her teddy bear.
d. The little girl’s favorite color is orange.
e. The little girl is hungry and really just wants a chocolate bar, and honestly, don’t we all?
It will definitely be better written than this, but the gist is this: You might have two or three throwaway answers, like C, D, and E, and two correct or semi-correct ones, like A and B. Both are at least partially correct, with A being the more basic, less thematically-based version. If you interpreted that void to be insomnia, though, you might go with answer choice A. However, the proctors wanted you to pick B, that she’s afraid of the dark—their version of the story.
You’d get the question wrong because you interpreted the passage differently.
Now, I’m not saying that every question will be this way; most passages won’t be as ambiguous as the example above. But the idea is still there, that you’re not learning to think for yourself as you interpret a work of literature—you’re learning to think for the test.
That brings us to the next question type, literary terms.
After my first encounter with the ink-printed monster that was the SAT Literature Diagnostic Test, I waded through endless pages of guidelines and test strategy and vocab words.
One part of the book encouraged me to minimize guessing to two questions if possible. Yet another page told me everything I’ll ever need to know about the sonnet. I learned the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme structure, which is forever burned into the back of my brain, and that the last gg couplet constitutes a heroic couplet if—and only if—it’s written in iambic pentameter.
I finally learned the difference between metonym and synecdoche.
I realized that I didn’t need to know what polysendeton was for this test, which made me a bit sad considering it was one of the few words I remembered from AP Lang.
Is all this useful information? I couldn’t help but think. When I’m writing my own stuff, will I ever need to know what the heck the word metonym means in order to actually use it?
I’ve ended up playing those questions in my head fairly often, considering I’m taking so many standardized tests as I head into senior year. I think I have an answer.
When you’re writing, you don’t need to know the term to use the technique, but knowing the term just might encourage you to use the technique deliberately.
Even if I’m wrong, metonym is pretty cool trivia knowledge.
How do surface analysis questions fall into the mix, then?
These, to me, are the most helpful question type. Since they don’t ask you to go deep into the text, they don’t encourage any sort of specific thinking model. You’re only asked to understand what the author is trying to say, and to put that meaning into different words. If Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try,” a question might want you to rephrase it as “You have to commit to something instead of approaching it halfheartedly.” Pretty straightforward.
There’s not much to these questions besides analyzing the actual meaning of the passage. Perhaps other question structures, such as ones that have you categorize a piece as satire or something like that, will pop up. Otherwise, these questions are pretty basic (not to say they’re not hard), and I’ve found that they can be pretty helpful. More on that below…
…as we come to the essential question. Can standardized tests actually do some good in the world? Or are they not only the bane of a student’s existence, but also a useless resource that encourages conformity rather than innovation and creativity?
The answer, as indicated in my analysis above, is complicated. In my view, standardized tests can be good for some things. From my first interaction with the SAT practice book to the day I took the test, for instance, my understanding of classical literature improved tenfold. By test day, I could generally understand a poem from the 1800s or even the 1600s after a close read or two (at least, understand it on a level that allowed me to answer most of the questions). I could even, to my surprise and joy, kind of get Shakespeare.
Maybe it was because I was finally learning obscure terms like heroic couplet or reviewing old ones like iambic pentameter. Maybe it was because, in my ever-raging fear of sonnets, I ended up reading and analyzing half a dozen of them before test day. Or maybe it was those practice tests—maybe they actually did something for my literary knowledge.
I’ll never really know.
Literature tests are the bad and the good, the best of times and the worst of times. (Though mainly the worst of times if I’m being honest, mostly because you have to, you know, take them.) They’re a tricky thing to analyze, and a trickier thing to judge.
As society continues to trend toward the standardization of classroom material and intellectual thought, though, I’m hoping test-makers won’t fall into the trap of forcing students to think a certain way and approach literature from a narrow lens. I hope we’ll learn that creativity is more important than the ability to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet.