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A Hero's Journey Through Science Fiction

(*ahem* Testing! One, Two, Three…) Ursula K. Le Guin’s SQ and Standardized Testing

In 1985, The Twilight Zone series was revived with new episodes, one of which was titled “Examination Day”, based on a short story first published in 1958 in Playboy. A young boy, Dickie, turns twelve and is required to take a mandatory government I.Q. test. Because there is great apprehension on his parents part about their son’s success, and because it is the Twilight Zone, one’s impulse is to fear that the boy will be too low in intelligence and terrible things will happen to him. You would be half right. The boy’s parents are informed in cold-blooded fashion that their son tested at an intelligence level deemed too high for government standards, to whit the parents are asked, “What would like done with your son’s remains?”

I mention this in macabre fashion because it’s state standardized testing season here in the state of Washington, and that means the annual HSPE, which stands for– (hold it, let me look it up) the High School Proficiency Exam. Sophomores take this exam as part of their graduation requirement and from 3rd grade to the 8th, they take a Measurement of Student Progress to ensure they are on tract to pass the HSPE. A handful of years ago the HSPE replaced another test called the WASL, which, if memory serves me, stood for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Before the WASL…

There was no before the WASL. When the cold war ground to a halt, we had given up competing with the Soviets and only glanced up long enough to see Asian and Western European children outpacing our own American posterity. Right then we realized how so lacking we were at academic discipline that we scrambled for a myriad of ways to truly improve the decline of the American education system. Decades later this struggle rages on. Republicans blame teacher unions, and in this criticism they have a valid point, but unfortunately this point is buried under a skyhigh pile of their usual horsecrap of playing lickspittle to corporate special interests and to the push for religious indoctrination in public schools; on the other hand, Democrats blame the conservative interests of corporations, and this is a valid criticism too, but unfortunately this is nullified by their failure to force teacher unions from off their perch and enact needed changes in teacher training.

In the late 1990s, the impetus to improve American education came in the way of standardized testing throughout all fifty states that centered around a system of core standards in Math, Reading, Writing, Science, Social Studies and the Arts. When this ball got rolling, and legislators in the states were pumping millions of dollars of state coffers for test development, George W. Bush enacted his federal No Child Left Behind law. Herein, these standardized tests became measuring sticks for progress towards this federal goal.

As an educator I find this nation’s obsession with testing to be rather…fascinating. I can appreciate the quest for this elusive weapon. Imagine, a singular test that will, in one fell swoop, assess completely the strengths and failings of a student in writing, reading, science and math. But the WASL, Washington state’s first stab at serious academic reform, was seen as draconian, and the pressure for teachers and parents to bow to it gave critics plenty of ammunition to suggest that the sensibilities of children were being laid to waste in honor of a…well, a mere test.

Public displeasure of the test mounted in the late 2000’s and our local illustrious two-time Pulitzer prize winning Seattle PI political cartoonist David Horsey had a field day writing and drawing on the grievances being leveled. Here are a few:

“• The shift of time and resources to the WASL is crowding the arts out of our schools and shortchanging other vital subjects, such as history.

• The WASL regimen should not be the primary measure of student success since, to a significant extent, it measures the ability to take a test rather than actual knowledge or skills.

• Post-high school, graduates are being told the writing style and math methods drilled into them by the WASL are not appropriate for college work or technical jobs in the military.

• There are alternative tests that are cheaper, provide faster results and better measure student learning.”

It was during the throes of implementing this test back in early 2000s that I happened upon a short story by the grand master of science fiction Ursula K. Le Guin. I was teaching a unit on sci-fi lit when I found her short story SQ (Sanity Quotient), which deals with the development and implementation of a universal test to assess one’s sanity, much the way an I.Q. test would *cough* determine one’s intelligence level. Creating an efficient test that covers the widest base possible, is the Holy Grail of educators, psychologists, politicians and other seekers of truth. In SQ, the UN Chief of the Psychometric Bureau, Dr. Speakie, is a physician whose sole pursuit is the mental well-being of every human being. As narrated by Mary Smith, an assistant to Dr. Speakie, she assures us that the good doctor has the world’s best interest foremost on his mind. This test is the poison on the tip of his spear that will slay the dragon that is mental illness, the ultimate weapon, perfect in every way, precision encased in each question to ascertain what constitutes good mental health.

As I shared this story with my students, invariably the prime question I would ask came down to, “What exactly constitutes a sane person?” As I laid it out for them, I will do so with you: If you took all the people in the world and lined them up from the most sane to the most insane, where do you make the dividing line between the two sides? If I have you over for dinner, and you leave peaceably with a nice doggie bag, you might consider me normal, or at least normal for someone who just fixed you rack-of-emu. But if I went after you with a kitchen knife because you suggested I not serve the bird with the head intact, eyes staring at you, I might stand far into the territory of insane. If I assigned a research paper to a class of twenty-five freshman and I wanted to know who can write one or not, the best and worst writers become rather obvious.

However, as you move towards the middle of the pack, the question becomes: “What truly constitutes a passing score on a research paper, a sanity quotient, or even a state exam?” That thin line on the Reading HSPE between a 400, which is passing, and a 399, which is failing, is just that: thin. To come up with as accurate an assessment as possible, there are five variables to determine who moves on and who retakes the test. This is where it gets messy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s SQ, or Sanity Quotient. The threshold for sanity on the test is 50. Anything 50 or higher constitutes insanity, or at least at its lowest level. But have no fear. In this brave new world, if you’re afflicted with mental health issues, you are not hauled away and processed back into the world as Soylent Green or the oil to run the machines of the oligarchy that just processed you into Soylent Green. No. This is a happy-friendly world that means to fix and send you back on your merry way.

Imagine taking the Sanity Quotient test and scoring a 49. Sure, you passed, but look how close you were to going to an asylum. Do you feel any better? Does your grip on reality seem tenuous? Think of the poor high school who passed a state exam to graduate with the lowest possible score. Yes he passed, but as is often the case, the kid doesn’t give a rip at how close he was to the threshold of success and failure. In fact, he’s dancing around his house, pumping his fists in the air because that albatross is finally off from around his neck. But what of the student trying to get a scholarship? Do you think barely passing will cut any ice with him, or the scholarship committee if these scores wind up in a portfolio or their transcripts?

Designing and implementing standardized exams takes bone-crushing piles of money and years of manpower. In determining the costs of implementing the WASL from 1995 to 2008, I found some figures at a blogsite called Betrayed – Why Public Education is Failing (yeah, great name) they cite OSPI figures combining federal, state and local monies at roughly $250,000,000. It should be noted that as part of the WASL was a an exam for listening, which was ultimately dropped because five tests strained the budget. Also, monetary concerns belayed inclusion of a history/social science component to the test, which were ultimately dropped. To grasp all this in a fantastical manner, allow me to highlight the grandiose efforts of Dr. Speakie and the UN to carryout the SQ examinations.

First, in Le Guin’s new world, the United Nations is the global government, and the nations of the world serve as its member states. Otherwise, the unfolding events have no way of ‘logical’ way of transpiring.

Second, in 1978 when this story was published, China’s population was roughly 978 million. There’s no population number given in the futuristic tale, but if we extrapolate to an even 1,000,000,000, consider how to test that hideous number in an orderly and expedient manner. As explained by Ms. Smith, the doctor’s assistant, these tests are to be carried out in China with 1,100 Achievement Centers (formerly called Cure Centers) and staffed by a grand total of 6,800. That’s one test center for every 1,000,000 Chinese citizens. Mary laughs while reflecting at this silly lowball number and explains how in three months time they stepped up to the challenge of training 113,000 Chinese evaluators. That’s one evaluator for every 8,850 citizens! (I must interject here that this ratio is no doubt smaller, as it is highly probable that only adults were tested, as no discussion of testing children or teenagers is made apparent.)

Thirdly, design and implementation of the state’s early WASL exam brought consternation from teachers, parents and politicians but not near enough initially to bring the test factory to a clean halt. In SQ, a Test Ban movement (get it?) rises up to a globally violent storm, but the world government knocks these aside. As Ms Smith explains: “Many of these people were very disagreeable and obviously unbalanced. …The SQ Test did actually, literally, scientifically show whether the testee was sane or insane, and the result could be proven, and all the psychometrists accepted them.” Despite accusations of “turning the world into a huge insane asylum,” Dr. Speakie would simply counter that “mental health is freedom.” According to Mary, those protesting demonstrated a “mob psychosis” through the burning of England’s parliament building, the Vatican rebellion and the Chilean H-Bomb. To counter this initial uprising came the “immediate implementation of the Testing Program in the disturbed states, and immediate amplification of the Asylum Program.”

As an educator I can illustrate first hand the reaction of students, teachers and parents to the implementation of the WASL. Teachers refused to implement the test and were suspended, parents on both sides of the political aisle refused to have their children tested, and–before the test became mandatory for graduation–students refused to take it seriously. One entire sophomore class at a rural Lewis County high school mounted an open rebellion by assuming a deliberate half-assed approach, with only 9% passing the writing portion of the test. It’s easy to imagine the radioactive nature of having your school’s test scores published in the newspapers along side other local schools proving to be politically charged, especially when said schools have better funding and have wealthier tax-paying landowners.

Except for the scale, this is the sort problem that Dr. Speakie faces as he implements the SQ test to the world. When Australia balks and foments open rebellion, the nation is threatened with an atomic attack before it finally relents. Pressure to pass the test mounts as scores begin to rise and the Achievement Centers, now called asylums by Dr. Speakie, begin to fill up. When the world president Dr. Kim fails the exam, it is Dr. Speakie who steps in to assume his duties. In the realm of non-fiction, as state WASL scores initially struggled, teachers were blamed and state Republicans discussed merit pay and the call for improved teacher training, all the while teacher unions with Democratic backing demanded better pay. Both sides completely ignore the real problem, which is dreadfully frightening to face because it forces a complete culture change in our nation.

However, tests are simple to construct and easy to implement; creating and implementing accurate tests, well that’s another endeavor, and an expensive one at that. But the bureaucratic mess is far more comforting for Americans to embrace than creating a new cultural paradigm of year round public school systems, priority funding and teacher training, as if we were locked in a new cold war. As a conservative nation, one whose revolution was largely libertarian, we don’t go willingly for cultural paradigm shifts. People don’t like dramatic change and people vote, and people vote against you if you’re seen pushing them out of their comfort zone. Not even a year of mass shootings in 2013 will budge American legislators from outlawing assault weapons or implementing universal background checks. Resistance is futile. Case-in-point: In 2008, the champion of the WASL, state superintendent Terry Bergeson, was defeated for a fourth term in office and was replaced by Randy Dorn, who was swept into office on his WASL reform rhetoric. The man was true to his word. Quickly the WASL was redesigned and rechristened the HSPE, thus continuing our national dependence on standardized testing.

Bergeson’s defeat was, thankfully, not near as dramatic as the downfall of Dr. Speakie. By story’s end, most of the world’s population have wound up imprisoned in asylums and the pressure to maintain the status quo pushes the good doctor over the edge. After admitting to Mary that his most recent test came in at a whopping 92, Dr. Speakie attacks her, trying to bite her neck. After he is hauled off for the care he needs, Ms. Smith, who consistently scores a 12, assumes her new role as interim global president.

Hopefully she will keep her wits about her, or Bill the janitor will find himself president of the world.

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4 thoughts on “(*ahem* Testing! One, Two, Three…) Ursula K. Le Guin’s SQ and Standardized Testing

  1. I’d change “marry” to “merry”. Other than that, I need to find a copy of SQ.

  2. Rickie Hernandez on said:

    This was absolutely fantastic! I had to write a critical analysis of SQ for my sophomore english class and I quoted you and put you down as a source. This helped me understand the story a lot better and for that I thank you. 🙂

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