Belief, Charlie Brown and Standardized Testing
This fall, media and governments in the United States are awash with commentary about the scale and role of standardized testing in education. Some are arguing that standardized testing is not out of control. Others are arguing for streamlining of standardized tests. Others comment on standardized testing’s failure while yet others are getting ready to implement new standardized testing in Kindergarten. And, of course, the Obama administration recently has attempted to provide a framework for standardized testing (see below: The 2% Solution and US Standardized Testing).
Into the midst of this furor, enters a beloved childhood figure, Charlie Brown, in The Peanuts Movie. Yes, the movie is full of Snoopy and the Red Baron’s battles, as well as Charlie Brown’s idolization from afar of “the little red-headed-girl.” However, one narrative arc of the movie is a commentary on standardized testing.
It all begins when Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty both are the last to submit their Scantron answer sheets for the standardized test. Charlie Brown rushes to complete his work after a red-headed-girl day-dreaming bout. Peppermint Patty, who has been snoozing for pretty much the entire test, scrambles in a last minute effort to submit something by making a happy face dot pattern and she then joins the dots to complete the face. As they dash to pass in their answer sheets, the teacher reminds them that they both need to put their names on their sheets. Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty in a flurry of papers rush to do so. (You can probably anticipate what happens. However, just in case, I must of a BIG spoiler alert in the next section, so if you want to enjoy the movie, read the rest of this commentary later.)
Not much is made of the standardized test until the announcement is made that someone in the school has received a perfect score. When the students gather around the posted list, the high scorer is none other than Charlie Brown, who is a little gobsmacked himself at the state of affairs. As time passes, Charlie Brown’s interests focus on his love-from-afar for the little red-headed girl, but the other students’ attitudes toward him changes. No longer are there cries of, ‘Good grief, Charlie Brown.” Instead, Charlie Brown finds himself being followed by adoring students wherever he goes. Students eventually dress like him (thanks to some clever salesmanship by his sister who also offers handsome mugs made in the pattern of his shirt). Charlie Brown, meanwhile, gets a self-help book from Lucy to try and transform himself into someone who can win the heart of the little red-headed-girl. The test score has changed Charlie Brown in the eyes of many and he begins to have a little more chutzpa.
In school, Charlie Brown’s luck seems to have changed for the better when he is paired with the little red-headed-girl to do a book report; however, to his chagrin, she has to suddenly go away on a family matter. Charlie Brown, perhaps spurred by the idea that he is now suddenly “smart,” as well as his desire to do something for the little red-headed-girl, chooses to do “their” book report on War and Peace. Despite some false starts, and a night of doubts, he manages to complete the book report and, according to Linus at least, has produced a most masterful review of the book. Of course, inevitably something happens and the review never is read by anyone else. However, the accolades for Charlie Brown do not stop as the school holds an assembly in his honour—after all, it is unheard of for someone to get a perfect score on the standardized test.
Charlie Brown is presented with his award and then the presenter decides to give him a copy of his test as a souvenir of his accomplishment. And, yes, you probably guessed it, the test is not his but Peppermint Patty’s—the happy face design of the answers confirms it.
Now, at this point, Charlie Brown is faced with an ethical dilemma—does he continue to bask in the glory of the perfect score and retain the adulation of his peers or does he disclose the truth? Charlie Brown, being the kind of person he is, discloses to the assembly (in which the little red-headed-girl is seated) that the test is not his. You can imagine the reaction. As school closes for the summer, the little red-headed-girl is off to camp and the movie is drawing to an end. However, it is the little red-headed-girl’s comments that remind us all of the goodness of Charlie Brown.
So, what then does The Peanuts Movie offer about standardized testing and the display of knowledge. Well, here’s a short list.
Standardized tests really aren’t about what you know. Look at Peppermint Patty—a perfect score accomplished by becoming creative about the circles on the answer sheet rather than by thinking about the answers.
Standardized tests are more about letting test designers control how you show what you know rather than demonstrating what you can really do. True, we never do know what Charlie Brown’s score was but we do know that he produced a masterful review of War and Peace, even though he was clearly a primary-school student.
Standardized tests trade on external competition rather than on internal drives. Sometimes the reason a person has for doing something, adoration for the little-red-headed girl in Charlie Brown’s case, can make you become, to paraphrase the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1933/1966), “a head taller than yourself.”
Standardized test scores are superficial much like the superficiality of Charlie Brown’s instant friends when he supposedly had the perfect score. They represent whatever the test represents. His character and his ability, however, are much deeper than a standardized score could ever portray. These in combination are what make him resilient enough to trust in the world and keep trying to kick footballs whenever Lucy places one in front of him.
Upon watching The Peanuts Movie, I am reminded of Peter Johnston’s (2012) book , Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Johnston writes about children’s ideas about being smart, about agency and helplessness. He argues, with some lovely research evidence behind his arguments, that education needs to move toward more “dynamic-learning frames” rather than “fixed-performance frames” such as are found not only in standardized tests but in the words we use in talking to each other and to children. Our words, Johnston (2012) argues, can influence whether children believe in themselves or, instead, assume a fixed identity of “being smart” or not “being smart,” an identity which defines them, an identity from which it is difficult to escape. The difference, according to Johnston (2012) is as simple casting a spelling test by saying, “Let’s see how many words you know already,” instead of “Let’s see how many words you know”(p. 2)—a one word difference, but a difference that is all about positioning possibilities.
If, as Johnston (2012) puts it, education is about “apprenticing children into humanity—the intellectual and social life of society” (p. 69), then standardized tests and the fixed identity thinking that typically accompanies them must be put aside. Instead our focus needs to be about helping children learn to live their lives well in a socially engaged manner. Johnston (2012) offers much research-based grounding and classroom-based advice on how to accomplish this goal. Perhaps, with a more dynamic view of learning in mind, we might all see the goodness in Charlie Brown, understand the importance of his ethical centering, and realize that there is much room for us to accomplish wonderful things when afforded space, time and the kindness and confidence of others.
Johnston, P. (2012). Opening minds: Using language to change lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Vygotsky, L. (1933/1966). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Voprosy psikhologii, 6. [Trans C. Mulholland]. URL http://www.all-about-psychology.com/support-files/play-and-its-role-in-the-mental-development-of-the-child.pdf