Wednesday, October 7, 2009

An Angry Little Toot from a Lone Brave Whistle-Blower

The books I am reading right now are: Love and Will by Rollo May, Aretha Franklin's autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, and Daniel Goleman's Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. And I just finished Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.

There may not, at first glance, appear to be any common ground (in the immortal words of Rev. Jesse Jackson) among these, but I will argue that as humans, we take ourselves wherever we go, and in so doing, we drag along the burdens of either consciousness or self-deception. As we choose. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, as best meets our needs and best fits our capacities at the time, the question of existence often being the same as that faced by Oedipus, (as Rollo May says): how much self-awareness can a human being bear? One hopes--I hope--that one may travel an upward trajectory in which one increases one's awareness of oneself and of the world, a trajectory that leads to some higher plane in which we can learn to live with truth.

We take ourselves to work, where we sometimes must walk a tightrope between our values and the need to earn a living. Most of us must make some compromises, must sell ourselves in some way. Some compromises are small and meaningless, but others may put our very integrity at stake. This is the real story of Farley's book.

Though the book is purportedly about the testing and test publishing industries, it is just as much about Farley, who presents himself as a whistle-blower, though one might be forgiven for the mean-spirited thought that Farley sure did take his time in finding the whistle, being as he kept on collecting a paycheck from The Great Satans for many years. And that perhaps this delay lends a bit of tarnish to his credibility.

It must also be said that Farley does not appear to best advantage when he writes about how he copied other workers' scores to get out of doing the work himself, or about spending most of his workday surfing the Internet, or about his hand-rubbing glee in charging exorbitant fees as a consultant (though maybe my pointing out the latter is evidence of envy on my part, as I cannot help but wonder how he managed to pull this off, as I have been a consultant in this industry for 8 or 9 years, and though I do support my little family, our style of living cannot be described as high off even a tiny hog). (Not to mention the subtle sexism in Farley's thinking that is revealed in his writing. Look at how his view of women is first invariably filtered through the lens of whether or not he finds them attractive. In his mind, women--no matter how accomplished or intelligent--are reduced to decorative objects because of course, a woman's main value has to do with whether you enjoy gaping at her. Then consider the adjectives and nouns he uses when writing about women. He says he traveled with "a gaggle" of women. Oh, please. Yes, we of the feminine persuasion are all just clacking geese, you know how ladies love to gab. Sigh.)

Reading Farley's book raises as many questions about him as it does about the industry he intends to expose. If it were so chock-full of despicable practices, why did he remain there for 15 years? How did making such a sacrifice of his own values and beliefs affect him? What exactly was going on in his mind as he participated in these ethics violations? While working in that industry, what efforts did he make for reform?

It seems that Farley wants to rail against this industry-wide malfeasance without taking any responsibility for his own role in it, but as it do say in the Bible, one cannot touch pitch and not be defiled.

This is a dilemma in which you might say I have a deep and abiding interest. The spirit of full disclosure compels me to state that I worked at CTB McGraw-Hill from 1993 to 2001, since which time I have been a content development consultant for a variety of test publishers, school districts, and one state department of education. Having worked with most of the major test publishing companies, I can say that I have seen a good share of corporate culture, and the more I see, the more I am glad I work for myself. Anyone who has ever worked in a corporate setting is probably familiar with at least some of the horrors Farley describes. People who are like the walking dead, who are so eccentric and odd-mannered as to seem unemployable, catch-22 mandates handed down from upper-level management, meetings that seem designed to showcase pomposity and vanity and futility.

But the shenanigans of wrong-doing in hand-scoring that Farley reveals, the behind-the-scenes falsification of scores, the pressure to score in one direction or another as the wind from on high changes, demands from psychometricians to increase the number of scores at a given grade point level, hand-scorers who were the dregs of society--these I did not see. Pressure to work faster, for higher productivity, yes. Unreasonable demands, yes. Obsequious sucking up to district or state officials, yes, yes, yes. Lots of co-workers with their little quirks, oh, yes.

As there is in the world, there is much that could and should be improved in this industry. On all sides, and probably in every department in every test publishing company. If Farley says that what he describes in the book was his experience, then that was his experience, I will not dispute that, though my own experience has been different. I agree completely that tests today are being used for purposes for which they should not be used. I agree completely that there is more to learning than can be measured by a paper and pencil test (or a keyboard test). I agree completely that one of the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind legislation has been the unleashing of unprincipled money-sniffing dogs into the industry (no offense to literal dogs), and the muck they try to pass off as genuine content--well! I have seen some awful terrible bad no-good things, is what I am saying.

And yet, testing is never going to disappear. Nor should it. The example I always give when a stranger tries to hold my feet to the fire is whether you would want to undergo an invasive medical procedure at the hands of a surgeon who had never submitted to (let alone achieved a passing grade from) any kind of examination as to his or her knowledge and skill. Let's face it, we don't even want to take our cars to mechanics who are not certified in some manner.

See, we can construct this evil villain testing empire, we can make paper dragon cut-outs all we want, but how does that effect real change? What about starting where we are? For myself, I find that much of my work has been coming more from curriculum the last few years, partly because these particular clients are just plain charming and nice to work with, but partly because, given the choice, I would rather be working on the side of remediation and intervention. Not that I have stopped my assessment work. However, if I ever do feel about it the way Farley did--if it stole from me my integrity--I hope that I would not hesitate to leave it behind. I can't really know what I would do unless I find myself in that situation. Some sleepless nights would result, I am sure. Rollo May says that fate plus guilt equals no rest for the wicked. (My paraphrase.)


  1. In regards to credibility, Mr. Farley has a full-time job with a for-profit testing company to this day.

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