Sam Elliott’s Cheatin’-Heart, Gas-Pressure Problem Blues

A few years back, I had occasion to rent a car for a day. My own car needed maintenance, the kind you can’t just do the one-day dropoff/pickup for, and I had a client meeting in downtown Denver that I needed transportation to. So I dutifully called a Major Car Rental Place1 and reserved a midsized sedan for the day. My friendly reservation clerk took my information, asked me if a Toyota Camry would be all right, and I told her that it would. “Great,” she said. “You’re all set.”

The next week, when I showed up to claim my car, there were exactly two cars on the lot. One was a Toyota Yaris, a vehicle that’s barely a car; I was forced to rent one in Phoenix once, and I was stunned to find that it might be the only car left in the world with true rolldown windows. The other was an elephantine pickup truck, the kind you can’t help but hear Sam Elliott’s voice as you climb into. My heart sank, but I went inside anyway to talk to the clerk, hoping that perhaps my Camry was being held in heated storage somewhere.

Nope. They fucked me. It was going to be a choice between the Yaris and the Sam. With snow in the forecast for the day – and some decidedly sketchy-looking tires on the Yaris – I took the Sam, cursing the rental company with each gas-guzzling mile, praying that I wouldn’t be subjected to client guffaws and questions about where my gun rack was2. When I returned, the desk clerk asked me what I would rate my car-rental experience out of ten.

“Four,” I told him. “And that’s only because I was actually provided something with a motor. But you ought to be goddamned ashamed of yourselves. You had a WEEK to get a Camry here, and you didn’t. You also didn’t call me last night to warn me that you hadn’t.”

He paled at that, and replied, “Is there something we can do to change your mind about your rating? I can’t put down a four.”

“Why? No single-digit numbers on your keyboard?” I shot back.

“No, we get in trouble if we don’t record all 10s.”

“But I didn’t have a 10 experience,” I explained. “I just didn’t.”

He went on to offer me all manner of grease to get me to rave about my J.R. Ewing driving experience, and I refused to budge; what was he going to offer me, a free pickup truck rental? So we parted ways, he with his four and impending butthurt, me with my lame car-rental experience, and I got to thinking what a strange exchange it had been; can’t anyone well and truly err anymore? Have we become a society of substanceless ‘tens’ at any cost?

I was reminded of that experience as I read Cheating Upwards recently, the gist of which is that, as a society, we’re installing ever more educationally-onerous standardized tests, which students are ever more inclined to cheat on, wasting everyone’s time involved. (And, from prior readings, I know that the assessors of those standardized tests are also essentially wasting their time). We’ve also lowered standards so that schools can appear to be performing well, balming parental concerns, ensuring that teachers keep their jobs, and giving us an increasingly-delusional sense of our place in the world. In a world where everyone aces their Regent’s examinations – as the, um, protagonist of “Cheating Upwards” did – are we really surprised that some of our students end up behind car-rental counters, begging for perfect customer experience scores?

Moreover, where does all of this jiggery-pokery go? How willing are we, as a society, to accelerate down this highway of bullshit to a state in which every car-rental experience and every Regent’s examination score is perfect – even though everything beneath those veneers is rotten? So Naseem gets into the good school; then what? At some point, exposure is inevitable; this is a cycle without a happy ending, for anyone involved – and, in the long term, for our nation.

We’ve had standardized tests in place, in one form or another, in elementary and secondary education since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 required standardized testing in public schools. And yet we’re still falling further behind with every passing year.  Some of it, I think, is our nation’s insistence that our children get As, regardless of whether those As are connected to any rational form of grading whatsoever. We’re content to take the yearly standardized test findings and set expectations based on where the bulk of our students perform, much like painting red and white target circles around wherever the hell our arrows land. That’s not assessment, and it’s not progress; it’s self-delusion. Worse, we’re wasting the time of everyone involved, and crushing out creativity as we go.

So where do we go from here? Well, for starters, we should probably stop wasting time on tests that aren’t connected to any objective, global reality, and start instituting more PISA-driven testing. But even then – and I’m certainly joining a loud throng in saying so, but I’ll add my voice – we should probably stop wasting  time on testing as it’s currently constituted, period.

I’m not even just talking about elementary and secondary education, either. E recently took both the EXPLORE and the ACT within the span of a month, so I’m fairly steeped in upper-middle school/college prep exams right now, as we worked through a bunch of the ACT prep material together. At one point, I noticed her getting very frustrated with the timed practice test, and after the section was complete, I called proceedings to a brief halt.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“If this is what college is like,” she replied – bless her heart – “I don’t think I want to go.”

So I had to explain that, no, college wasn’t really like this. The math section does resemble a typical timed college exam, only you’re not trying to retrieve four years’ worth of concepts at one time. Not much of the rest has anything to do with day-to-day college, other than the Writing section. Reading does have some applicability in building comprehension skills, and it’s good to build a robust reading rate in life anyway, but I never saw commonplace work anything like the Reading section in terms of time pressure once I got to college (and before you dismiss Reading out of hand…it’s not as easy as you might be thinking.) Science is easily the least valuable of the sections, hurling huge volumes of data at the test-taker and demanding that he or she solve temperature and gas pressure problems in a matter of seconds. It would be great training if you were contemplating becoming an astronaut, but – as we’ve argued elsewhere with estimation – there are precious few situations in professional life that demand complexity, accuracy, and (ridiculous) speed of execution all at the same time.

Do I have a substitute ready for all of this aging, creaky testing infrastructure? I don’t. But I do have the pragmatic Midwestern philosophy of ‘it really doesn’t matter how big or imposing it is – if it’s broken, and it can’t be easily fixed, then back up the truck, ’cause it’s going to the dump.’ And this, my friends, is a situation that is calling for the truck.

Paging Sam Elliott.


1 I won’t name it here, but in pop culture, it had a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds.

2 I know everyone thinks that each Colorado citizen is issued a truck, a gun rack, and a pair of skis at the state line, but we’ve evolved a bit. Call us…semi…politan.

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