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The Throned Test

Test scores now have regal status. They drive many of our policy decisions, yet we pay too little attention to their content and merit. We know they leave much to be desired, but we need to understand why.

Often the reading passages and questions are poorly written and geared toward limited thinking. For example, the New York State sample sixth-grade ELA test (the actual test from 2005) on the NYSED Web site includes a short anonymous “poem”:

The Giant Pipe To me, this giant pipe Is the secret brain center of the world, The biggest spaceship, the deepest cave, The longest tunnel, a haunted house, A submarine, the home of a queen. Like a lizard that changes colors, I can live in different worlds. Like treasures in a pirate chest, My secrets are hidden Inside this giant pipe.

A picture below the poem shows a pipe on a playground. The poem is followed by five questions. The second one reads:

On which literary device does the poet rely on [sic] most in the first five lines of The Giant Pipe? A. personification B. metaphor C. onomotopoeia [sic] D. repetition

Note that the question has both a grammatical error (repetition of “on”) and a misspelling (“onomotopoeia”). Let us try to answer the question anyway. The correct answer, according to the answer key, is B, “metaphor.” However, a student might see these lines as a description of a child’s make-believe games, not as metaphors.

Students are usually taught that similes and metaphors compare two things, but while similes use “like” or “as,” metaphors do not. (I have often heard the explanation “A metaphor is a simile without ‘like’ or ‘as.'”) But such an explanation does not cover all situations and does not address what similes and metaphors are actually for: to make us see something differently, to give a new meaning or aspect to something.

So, for instance, Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” (“What happens to a dream deferred?”) contains a string of similes combined with metaphors (e.g., “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run?”) up to the very end, where a metaphor takes over (“Or does it explode?”). Hughes’ similes and metaphors give us a sense of the awfulness and power of a deferred dream. Not only is the dream likened to many things, but the likenesses compound each other and lead to the surprise ending.

Games of make-believe may or may not involve metaphor; they may substitute one thing for another instead of associating the two. When E. B. White refers to himself as a “knight of the goose quill,” he is using metaphor (and giving a new sense to both “knight” and “goose quill”). But if a girl, dressed as a fairy for Halloween, picks up a pen and says “This is my magic wand,” the pen may be simply a prop, a substitute for the wand. In “The Giant Pipe,” the lines in question seem to refer to make-believe: the speaker, presumably playing inside the pipe, imagines it as different things from moment to moment.

Now, the images in question could come across as metaphors if they had a little more focus. With a lizard in one line and a treasure chest in the next, the poem jumps from thought to thought; the images distract from each other. The idea of the lizard distracts from the idea of the home of a queen, which in turn distracts from the idea of submarine or tunnel. There is no room for the pipe to gain new meaning or a new quality, because nothing builds or lingers. Compare this to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “To Any Reader,” which is both clearer and more intriguing. It shows a window into a window into a past world that still lives and plays. There, as in the Hughes poem, simile and metaphor deepen the meaning of the poem. But the reading passages and poems on state tests are rarely first-rate. And when they are, the questions might not do them justice.

Granted, a sixth grader might not analyze the question on these terms. Even so, he or she might legitimately see something wrong with each of the four options, including the metaphor option.

So if the “poet” is not employing metaphor, which literary device does he or she use? One could make a case for option D, “repetition,” because the speaker keeps turning the pipe into something else: brain center, spaceship, cave, tunnel, haunted house, submarine, home of a queen. While words and phrases do not repeat, the act of transformation does. But D is wrong, as it turns out. Too bad for the student who pondered the question.

Tests should at least approximate the best of what we want students to learn. They should have excellent, memorable literary selections and well-conceived questions. Our state tests fall far short of this. And yet we raise their throne higher and higher.

About our First Person series:

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