A Measure of Knowledge

By Hansel Burley

And the Greek god Dionysus descended from the clouds bringing ..."

I still remember something like this from a reading passage in the California Achievement Test (CAT). As a youth, I took exactly the same CAT twice a year, from the seventh through the 12th grades. In the fall, the school counselor read this passage to us -- always mangling the name Dionysus -- over our crackling intercom system. In the spring, we used test booklets. I always did better on the spring test.

I remember at least one teacher coaching us through this section on the Greek gods. It was wine Dionysus brought with him, I believe. I still remember that the religious cult inspired by Dionysus (or perhaps inspired by his gift) led to Greek theater, according to that CAT passage. I learned quite a bit from that standardized test.

Some folks might be surprised to learn that standardized tests can teach. Their more important function, of course, is to provide students, parents, teachers, and schools with information about what is going on in classrooms and in students' heads. We really cannot get this information any other way.

Standardized tests have become so important in recent years that we clearly need to understand them better. Like Dionysus' wine, these tests have their good side and their bad. In American education's standardized testing culture, the better we understand these tests, the better we'll be able to use them and the information they give us.

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