Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Standardized Testing
May 4, 2015 7:22 PM - Season 2, Episode 12 - Subscribe

This week: Baltimore protests over death of Freddie Gray. Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro targeted... with a mango actually, by a lady in a crowd, who wanted an apartment, so he gave her one, and so the floodgates opened. Bud Light unveiled a new slogan that is, unimaginably but actually, "The Perfect Beer For Removing 'No' From Your Vocabulary For The Night." LTW produces their own commercial for Bud Light, more prominently featuring the word NO, because "Bud Light tastes like the scared urine of a rabbit." The main story is on standardized testing. (YouTube 18m) Oh, and that is Wyatt Cenac in the Bud Light "commercial."
posted by JHarris (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I did appreciate the irony of No Child Left Behind and uhhhh... whatever Obama's catchy name for is for his initiatives... being all about using the supposedly objective test results for judging the success of teachers and curriculum while they themselves fail abjectly when those standards are applied. Hah!
posted by Justinian at 7:50 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Testing is a complicated subject, particularly when it comes to how the results of those tests are applied and interpreted. However, I felt that John's treatment of the subject was unusually shallow and glib.

The system is certainly not working as intended or designed, but as far as I can tell, almost all journalistic efforts to discuss the issue are needlessly reductive, and rely far too heavily on emotions and anecdata. I was disappointed to see John Oliver fall into this same trap; the fact that students hate tests is hardly a shocking revelation.

(Disclaimer: I work in ed-tech, but don't currently have a stake in the standardized testing business.)
posted by schmod at 9:02 PM on May 4, 2015

That Bud Light bit (and the bonus during the credits) has awaken me to my new favorite micro-genre of comedy: extended riffing on creatively insulting descriptions of stuff. The more obviously a product of a drunken runaway writer's room with no brakes it is, the better.

Other classics of the form:

What Sex Panther cologne smells like

Why Nightcrawler is getting fired

Names are also fertile territory:

MST3K's many nicknames for Dave Ryder

Key and Peele's East/West College Bowl (part 2)

John Oliver reads a list of Britain's fallen soldiers

Jon Stewart's Supreme Court couple's names
posted by Rhaomi at 10:43 PM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

"However, I felt that John's treatment of the subject was unusually shallow and glib. . . the fact that students hate tests is hardly a shocking revelation."

I, too, can't stand people treating a serious issue with shallow glibness.

posted by absalom at 4:00 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

fyi, The Hare and the Pineapple (pdf)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:38 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

John Oliver reads a list of Britain's fallen soldiers

Oh, that's good.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:16 AM on May 5, 2015

During the beer bit, I was hoping Colbert would show up. He spent so much time chugging Margarita Bud, it would have been a good joke.
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 8:42 AM on May 5, 2015

It was understandably reductive, trying to squeeze so much information into what's really a short piece. The barely-glimpsed evaluative formula that is somehow related to cattle reproduction was nothing more than a, "Huh?" moment, because he didn't give the time to it. I'm sure it's still a WTF situation, but you can't tell when it's used only for a couple of seconds' worth of gasps and dismayed laughing.

Funnily enough testing *is* a highly emotive topic (John's playing to his audience, but I feel like it's justifiable), and as a parent and non-US teacher it's quite horrific to see how kids (and teachers) are being treated by a very flawed system. And there wasn't even time to go into the way teachers are essentially forced to teach nothing but test content.

I was surprised to hear that kids can opt out. My understanding of the testing system there is that there *is* no opting out. Good for those kids, I guess. But how does that affect them down the line?

I laughed far too much at his "Obama" promise that every teacher will be allowed to slap one parent per year. Teacher humour.
posted by tracicle at 1:57 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I thought it was a good piece as it had some information I didn't already know, even after the thread on this topic a few weeks ago. Finding out something I didn't know on TV is so surprising these days I have to respect it. Oliver is in a tough position, as he has to sacrifice information for laughs, because if there were no laughs there wouldn't be a show at all. It's sick that couching information inside weak jokes is the only way to really tell people things these days but it is what its.
posted by bleep at 5:32 PM on May 5, 2015

I don't see how opting out can affect the kids down the line as it's really the teachers who are being tested, not the kids. It's not like the SATs.
posted by bleep at 5:33 PM on May 5, 2015

Not sure how it works currently, but when I was in middle and high school (quite awhile ago), placement in honors and Advanced Placement courses was determined to a large degree by standardized test scores. So it kind of is like the SATs to a small extent, or at least it was.
posted by dogwalker at 6:44 PM on May 5, 2015

Oh, I see. That could be. I thought that went by overall grades and teacher recommendations, at least that's how I thought it worked at my school.
posted by bleep at 6:45 PM on May 5, 2015

But of course why do things one at a time and consider individuals when it could all be driven by big data and corporations.
posted by bleep at 6:46 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm currently scoring tests part-time for Pearson in addition to my unrelated full-time job. It was very weird when my boyfriend put this episode on and John Oliver described exactly the thing I was doing.

FWIW, I don't have similar horror stories. I was not recruited on Craigslist. They require a bachelor's degree for most scoring projects, and many require a teaching license. They pay well--almost double the state's minimum wage. I used to score full-time in-person as a temp right out of college. My coworkers were generally pretty bright and personable (lots of retirees and fresh grads). I also don't find the speed expectations to be unreasonable--I would routinely post 3x-5x the expected daily values when I was doing this full-time. There's a lot of support available if you have edge cases or content questions. They try really hard to emphasize quality and consistency over speed in the training materials.

I thought most of the segment was fair, and there is definitely room for transparency and accountability. That said, I don't feel morally icky about working as a scorer and haven't experienced the issues mentioned in this segment. I find the stuff about tying teacher pay to test scores and student exhaustion to be way more troublesome than the quality of test scorers or scoring conditions.
posted by almostmanda at 8:17 PM on May 5, 2015

The thing that really bothered me about the NCLB bit was that despite playing and replaying that clip of Bush talking about real accountability or whatever, John Oliver never actually went into the idiocy said accountability entails, which is the real crux of the insanity of the Act: Your schools are struggling to meet the standards? Here's something that's sure to help: Less money. Oh, and remember you only have to achieve the bare minimum, so be sure and cut any and all programs that go above and beyond that. *unfurls MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner*
posted by Sys Rq at 9:39 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

On Opting-Out:

One of the things that makes this a very difficult issue to discuss and understand is the fact that there is no centralized educational rules or curriculum for the United States. There are 50 state Boards of Education and God only knows how many districts within each of those states. Each of those states - and possibly even each of those districts - have their own tests, rules, and procedures.

In Tennessee, for example, the End of Course test is worth 25% of the final grade and there is no possibility for opting out. In New York, most famously, students can opt and and do so in large number. I expect the legislative solution to this is to close the Opt Out option because that's a lot easier than fixing actual problems.
posted by absalom at 4:15 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

That "Hare and the Pineapple" selection is absolutely amazing. It's brilliant in a way that only carefully-orchestrated, purposeful nonsense can be. It's a long-form postmodern joke, where the joke is that it's a joke that it's a joke. It's the sort of passage, I feel, one is only in a position to truly understand and evaluate, to truly feel, after having studied Wittgenstein for far too long.

Which all leaves me perplexed: what the hell is it doing in tests like these?
posted by meese at 8:46 AM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Interesting to hear that the iPad deal (which comes with Pearson software) in LA has turned sour.
posted by juiceCake at 12:59 PM on May 6, 2015

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