Jun. 17, 2014

So much depends upon

by Tom Chandler

the blonde woman who drops a potato
in the supermarket parking lot where it rolls
beneath the 89 Dodge Ram with rust patches
near the left rear fender from contact with
too much road salt during the winter of 91
which was actually one of the mildest on record
though the driver tends to remember it
as the season he was fired from his job
at the aluminum window factory where
he had worked for nearly sixteen years
without promotion as he shifts into reverse
and backs over the potato which squishes
as softly as a dream's last breath and leaves
slick asphalt for the lot boy to slip on
as he pushes a train of shopping carts
and sprains his lumbar vertebrae just
days before he is scheduled to leave
for basic training to become the cool
killing machine he's always craved
but will now have to settle for someday
making assistant produce manager
and marrying a girl he almost loves just
as the blonde woman finds herself
one potato short with dinner guests
ringing the doorbell.

"So much depends upon" by Tom Chandler from Toy Firing Squad. © Wind Publications, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1901 that the first standardized tests were administered by the College Board. Before standardized tests, many universities had their own college entrance exams, and prospective students were required to come to campus for a week or more to take exams. Since each college's exam demanded a different set of knowledge, high schools offered separate instruction for students based on which colleges they hoped to attend. Some colleges accepted applicants based on how well previous graduates of the same high school were doing at the college. Other colleges sent faculty to visit high schools, and if the high school met their criteria, then they would admit any graduate of that school. It was a confusing system, and as more Americans began to attend college, it was no longer practical. Between 1890 and 1924, the number of college students grew five times faster than the growth of the general population. In 1885, the principal of a prestigious boarding school wrote to the National Education Association asking them to reform the system. It took 15 years of discussion, committees, and arguments, but the College Board was finally formed in 1900. Its founders hoped to simplify curricula at the high schools, and make a college education accessible to a wider pool of applicants.

Beginning today and throughout this week in 1901, the first standardized college entrance exams were given to 973 students at 67 locations (plus two more in Europe). More than a third of the students were from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Students were tested in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The tests were essays, not multiple choice, read by a team of experts in each subject. The experts met at tables in the library of Columbia University, and the essays were graded as Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor. Columbia was one of the main forces behind the conversion to standardized testing — of the 973 applicants, 758 were applying to either Columbia or its affiliate Barnard.

For the next couple of decades, the tests were in use but were not widely accepted. Only a small fraction of incoming freshmen took standardized tests, and there were only 10 colleges that admitted all of their students based on the test — some colleges looked at the test, but also provided their own entrance exams, and happily admitted students of any qualifications if their parents were donors.

The early tests were considered "achievement" tests because they tested for students' proficiency in certain subjects. A couple of decades later, the College Board switched to "aptitude" tests, intended to measure intelligence. There were mixed motives for this change. On the surface, it made college admittance more fair and accessible to students whose high schools didn't teach ancient Greek or prepare students specifically for college. But the biggest proponents of intelligence testing were college officials who were concerned about the rapid influx of immigrants — especially Eastern European Jews — to their student body. A Columbia University dean worried that the high numbers of recent immigrants and their children would make the school "socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement," and its president described the 1917 freshman class as "depressing in the extreme," lamenting the absence of "boys of old American stock." These college officials believed that immigrants had less innate intelligence than old-blooded Americans, and hoped that they would score lower on aptitude tests, which would give the schools an excuse to admit fewer of them.

In 1925, the College Board began to use a new, multiple-choice test, designed by a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham, who had modeled it on his work with Army intelligence tests. This new test was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The first SAT was taken in 1926. These days, more than 1.6 million students take the SAT each year.

It's the birthday of poet Ron Padgett (books by this author), born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1942). When he was growing up, Oklahoma was a dry state, and his father made a living as a bootlegger. Padgett read voraciously as a child and began jotting down poems in spiral notebooks when he was 13. He went to Columbia University and studied at the Sorbonne in France on a Fulbright scholarship.

His poetry collections include Tulsa Kid (1979), Poems I Guess I Wrote (2001), and most recently, How Long (2011) and Collected Poems (2013).

It's the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey (books by this author), born to American missionaries in Tientsin, China (1914), who spoke Chinese before he spoke English, moved to the States when he was 10, and graduated from Yale. After college, he spent a summer as a secretary for writer Sinclair Lewis, then he went to work for Time magazine, reporting on World War II from all over Europe and Asia.

He wrote more than a dozen books, but he's best known for his 31,000-word nonfiction piece "Hiroshima," which appeared in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. The cover of the late-summer magazine issue featured a cheerful picnic with people sunbathing, strumming mandolins, dancing, playing croquet and tennis. Then, readers opened to the "Talk of the Town" page to find the beginning of Hersey's voluminous essay and this note from The Editors:

"TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city [...]"

John Hersey's Hiroshima begins:

"At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk."

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