Triad novelist takes shots at standardized testing, current climate

by Amy Kingsley

Every few years between kindergarten and eighth grade, an exhaustive battery known as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills supplanted the homegrown Texas standardized tests I regularly took. For a moment as I read John McNally’s novel America’s Report Card, I remembered those tests and suspected they might have passed through the actual facility that serves as a model for the book’s National Testing Center in Iowa City. Perhaps even through McNally’s own hands.

As it turns out, McNally worked as a standardized test scorer in the mid-1990s. By that time I was well into high school and had left ITBS tests far behind. But it did occur to me that the proliferation of standardized testing has allowed ‘— at the very least ‘— the dating and geographical categorization of generations of American children.

As strange as that notion is, it’s not nearly as outlandish as the one McNally proposes in America’s Report Card. McNally’s protagonist, an overeducated and under-ambitious character named Charlie Wolf, takes a job grading the standardized test that titles the book, a gig that leads him down a rabbit hole of government intrigue. Wolf initially regards the employment as intellectual piecework to tide him over until something more substantial comes along. This attitude allows Wolf to overlook the more dubious aspects of an industry that focuses more on consistency than accuracy. But when his personal life starts to unravel, so to does the character’s obedience to his priggish supervisors. When Wolf encounters an essay from a high school senior who is convinced the government is out to get her, the character sets off a chain of events intricately bound up in contemporary politics.

The author set his novel in Iowa City and the blue-collar Chicago suburb of Burbank, both places where he spent some of his formative years. Now a professor in the English department at Wake Forest University, McNally has plenty to say about the testing industry and current political climate. His own tenure as a test scorer lasted roughly two years as he was finishing up his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska and juggling two other part-time jobs.

‘“Sometimes you’re reading thousands of answers to the same question,’” McNally said. ‘“And you start to realize that the question doesn’t really matter anymore. It seemed very surreal, like a Kafka novel.’”

As in the novel, McNally’s bosses at the test scoring facility stressed consistency and appeared almost arbitrary in their scoring.

‘“If an answer from four years ago got a certain number of points,’” McNally said, ‘“then they wanted you to give it the same number of points. Even if the test had been misgraded four years ago.’”

The culprit, as McNally saw it, was money. The standardized testing industry cheered the election of President Bush because they knew he would champion test-friendly policies like No Child Left Behind. The competition for lucrative contracts shifted testing companies’ priorities, McNally said.

McNally, who has an MFA from the University of Iowa in addition to his doctorate, considered mining his test scoring experience for an essay before abandoning the notion. The idea to peg a novel to the experience didn’t occur to him until the run-up to the 2004 election. At that point he also made the choice to background the action with events from the election.

‘“I felt like it was difficult to write about 2004 without the political contest,’” he said. ‘“Especially when the characters are having their own awakenings about things.’”

Jainey, the high school student who penned the cry-for-help essay, propels the characters’ political growth as she gains awareness of events like Ruby Ridge and Waco. Like many high school students of burgeoning political awareness, Jainey flirts with conspiracy theorizing. Unfortunately for her, the menace she detects is indeed real, but closer to home than any abstract government operative.

McNally intends the book to be read in part as political satire, and he makes no bones about his opinion of our president.

‘“With George W. Bush, whenever I think of a worst-case scenario it seems to come to fruition,’” he said.

To that end, his experiences as a test scorer served only to inspire the more bizarre portions of the book.

‘“When I was grading tests there were always rumors that it was a psychological test for us,’” he said. ‘“And as a writer its fun to sort of take those rumors to the extreme.’”

Of course, some of the things he considered satirical when he wrote the novel have proved to fall fairly close to the mark. One example is the armed services’ use of standardized test results to target potential recruits. But for all their use as a government tool, McNally said the tests have failed in their stated intention ‘— to improve education.

‘“I’ve been teaching for sixteen years now and definitely in the last five or six years I’ve noticed a change in students,’” he said. ‘“They are much much better at memorizing things but not as good at synthesizing disparate information.’”

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