It is always risky to imagine what some long-dead figure might have thought about current events. But David Perrin, an experienced high school English teacher in Illinois, makes a good case for Mark Twain’s likely reaction to Common Core testing.


He cites Twain’s writings to show his disdain for test-centered teaching. Perrin gives example after example of Twain’s low regard for the teaching of facts without meaning, taught solely to be parroted back to the teacher.


Perrin writes:


Twain compared the instructional methods in American asylums for the “deaf and dumb and blind children” to those used routinely in Indian universities and American public schools. As a friend of Helen Keller and a champion of her education, Twain was familiar with the methods of asylums; he’d convinced his friend H.H. Rogers to finance her schooling at Radcliffe in 1896. In Following the Equator, he chastises public schools for emphasizing rote learning and teaching “things, not the meaning of them.” He applauds the “rational” and student-centered methods of the asylums, where the teacher “exactly measures the child’s capacity” and “tasks keep pace with the child’s progress, they don’t jump miles and leagues ahead of it by irrational caprice and land in vacancy—according to the average public-school plan.” In contrast, Twain quips, “In Brooklyn, as in India, they examine a pupil, and when they find out he doesn’t know anything, they put him into literature, or geometry, or astronomy, or government, or something like that, so that he can properly display the assification of the whole system.”


The Common Core standards and their assessment tools would have given Twain plenty of fodder for his sardonic wit. The first “anchor standard” for writing at the grade 11–12 level declares that students will “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” This goal will be assessed by Pearson, one of America’s three largest textbook publishers and test-assessment companies. Pearson will, at least in part, be using the automated scoring systems of Educational Testing Services (ETS), proprietor of the e-Rater, which can “grade” 16,000 essays in a mere 20 minutes.


Robo-grading! How absurd is that? Perrin cites Les Perelman, who is a retired professor of writing at MIT and a leading critic of robo-grading. Perelman “claimed that ETS privileges “length and the presence of pretentious language” at the expense of truth, stating, “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945.” He watched the e-Rater return high scores after he submitted nonsensical passages—for instance, the claim that “the average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents … In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, starring roles in motion pictures.” These sentences hardly adhere to the stated goal of “valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence” of claims.


Twain would also have been critical of the profit motive involved in Common Core testing. It never ceases to amaze how willing Americans are to sell out principles and values when the next fast-talking salesman comes along.


Perrin concludes:


In Twain’s writings, he returned again and again to a simple theme: Education should be practical and meaningful. When high marks on exams are the goal, students end up focusing on isolated facts and writing in what Twain described in Tom Sawyer as a “wasteful and opulent gush.” He would have almost certainly had something to say about essay-grading software and corporations that refuse to reveal their testing methods.