Saturday, January 17, 2004


Last month I took the CBEST (California Basic Education Skills Test) as a preliminary step in attaining my adult teaching credential. The CBEST isn’t known for putting its takers up to challenging mental feats of strength (it’s not like taking the GRE or the Bar Exam). Mostly, it’s just another hoop to jump through—a barrier between the school districts and the mobs of motley folk who would gladly take $110/day to substitute teach or $30/hour to teach ESL, if it were simply a matter of having the desire.

The CBEST had been a pain in my ass for a few months. I’d signed up to take it once, paying $20 more than the initial fee because I’d signed up late. Then I missed that exam because of car-borrowing schedule conflicts, which sucked. Two months later (when it was finally offered again) I signed up early enough to pay only the regular $40 the second time around, and made sure to have my travel plans well-outlined. That’s a total of $100 I paid in order for the state to tell me, on an official piece of (not just paper) stock paper, that I can convert fractions to percentages and identify the closest synonyms to obscure words like “strange,” or “ambiguous” if asked to do so.

The reading section was easy, the math a fun little blast from the past (I realized I hadn’t done any math—other than standard arithmetic—in ten! years), and then came the essays. Now, nobody likes an in-class essay (let alone 2!), and despite what y’all might think, English majors are no exception. It might be slightly easier for us to whip out lengthy, super cheese responses to the types of generic questions asked in these standardized tests, but it’s no less obnoxious.

The first question had something to do with whether or not we were currently living in something that could be considered “the best of times and the worst of times.” I don’t recall much about my response to that one except the main point being: we have a great deal of potential to be living in “the best of times” with scientific advances and what not, but that such potential was rendered null and void when advances were used for less-than-noble causes or when the worthy causes (i.e. treatment for HIV patients, or even basic healthcare) were like pipedreams for the majority of the county’s citizens—due to outrageous costs, etc, etc.

Anyway, the second question was a bit more tangible, though no less irritating to consider: “What is the single best piece of advice you’ve ever received?” For a stagnating 4 or so minutes, the only pieces of advice I could remember having received were, while incredibly practical, not the sort of responses you want to hand in to state-administered essay topics.

The first piece of advice was good for around-the-house matters: “Righty tighty, lefty loosey,” from my friend JD. If you’re unfamiliar with this phrase, it has to do with the direction for turning screws in order to produce the desired effect; I’ve used it many times in the year and a half or so since I learned it. Incidentally, this is close to what an ex-boyfriend deemed the best piece of advice he’d ever received from his father, which was: “Only an idiot screws a screw in too tightly.” Neither of those would have made much of an essay.

The second piece of advice I’ve considered invaluable came from my brother, about 6 years ago: “Beer before liquor, never been sicker…liquor before beer, never fear.” It’s not like I’m a big drinker, which is precisely why—come to think of it—a compact, rhyming, easily-remembered-even-when-already-a-little-bit-tipsy phrase like that has come in so handy—the two-line poem of sorts has more than made up for my lack of experience or marginal street smarts. How many toilet-hugging incidents were shrewdly sidestepped? How many “sick” days carefully preserved for bona fide illnesses? How many embarrassed apologies never uttered? Now, I should note here that there’s room for mention of wine in that little ditty (a point the owner of the wine bar downtown, my friend Nick, and any unfortunate witnesses to an unfortunate incident last winter will verify). Should it be considered liquor? Can it be safely mixed with anything? And what about warm alcoholic beverages like Sake, which just seem doomed for disaster by virtue of their being warm?

It’s not that I couldn’t have written an essay about this advice from my brother…look, I’m writing about it right now. It’s just that I shouldn’t. And I didn’t. What I did was make up a piece of advice that supposedly came from my Dad: “Never fail to recognize the lessons you can learn in the midst of a so-called failure,” or something like that. It’s exactly like something my Dad would say. My Mom, too, for that matter. And it's good advice. But it’s also like something you’d hear in an after school special or even from the Evil Dr. Phil. No matter how good the advice might be, it’s just not all that captivating to write about.

Is it so impossible to imagine that giving test-takers topics that are truly interesting would perhaps produce a better example of their best writing? Wouldn’t you have some pretty exciting responses to a question regarding the best and worst things about your first kiss? How about the shittiest day you remember? The time you walked out on a job and what brought you to that breaking point? What are the three most terrible (and yet true) things your ex-girlfriend could/would say about you? I suppose there are some censorship rules prohibiting the state from printing words like “shittiest” on standardized texts, but maybe it’s time we relax these puritan tendencies a bit.

With the new topics, they wouldn’t have to pay people so much to sit around and read these boring essays all damned day. It would be like a privilege—something they could get Masters students to do for next-to-nothing. Ok, maybe that’s exaggerating, but they sure would be easier to write. And they’d be more reflective of our personalities—isn’t that the most useful information anyway? What if some man’s shittiest day was the one that landed him in jail on charges of 2nd degree murder and racketeering? It might be a slightly better gauge of his appropriate place teaching children than some piece of advice his grandma handed down when he was 11. I guess that’s what the background checks are for, eh?

Just allow me my fantasies for now. I happen to believe standardized tests shouldn’t HAVE to be less fun than an enema.

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