Reader Responses to Utah High School Student’s Screen Shots   14 comments

The Utah teenager and her mother who decided to take a stand last week by taking screen shots and sharing them with the public  –photos of the SAGE/Common Core writing test,  hit some raw nerves.  Over a hundred comments were added here, with more posted on Facebook, and almost a hundred thousand views of those screen shots were logged in a few days.

Why? Reasons ranged and tempers flared:   Was the act of sharing screen shots heroic– or was it cheating? Was the test itself fair –or manipulative?  Should the student be failed and the teacher who didn’t see or stop her be fired?  Was the blog posting itself fair or manipulative?  Is this all evidence of an improved education system that creates deep-thinking students, or the very opposite?

A few of the responders words are worth repeating and are posted below.


Former teacher Laureen Simper wrote:

“Author Ray Bradbury could have used a SAGE test with a prompt like this, in his book “Farenheit 451”. As another commenter mentioned, Bradbury wrote:  ‘There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.’

“I have questioned the motives of central educational planners for years, ever since I had school-aged children. That was when I learned about John Dewey, when “Common Core” was going by the name du jour: “Outcome-Based Education“. That was when I read the original Humanist Manifesto.    John Dewey was one of the original drafters/signers of what I recognized as an anti-God constitution.  I learned that secular humanism and progressivism were the idealogies driving education “reform”.

“Progressive central planners continually repackage education reform when “the ignorant masses” figure out what the true motive is: to manage the lives of those ignorant masses, because they’re seen as too ignorant to manage their  lives for themselves. Sadly, as long as a shell game can continually be played with shifting appellations, all the sleepy little frogs go back to sleep, as our nice warm bath continues to heat up.

“The agenda to shift public thinking away from self-government started at least as early as the early 20th century. The Intercollegiate Socialist Society was founded in 1905. Its original members believed that 60 college campuses were enough leavening to turn social thinking towards government dependence.

“Originally, the movement focused on higher education. Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, said that the goal of higher education should be for a young man to come out of university as unlike his father as possible.

“But the plan was not limited to changing graduates of higher education. John Dewey, a few decades later, said that the influences of the home and family are properly challenged (by “steadying” ) in the government schools. This came from the “father” of modern education.

“Those who have not connected the same dots will disagree.  But I’ve read what I’ve read and heard what I’ve heard – straight from the mouths of the arrogant progressive central planners.

“Their motives are not pure. They plan to manage our lives of the ignorant masses, because they think that people are  too stupid or too lazy to govern themselves.  And the education reformers’ answer is not Jefferson’s answer:   ‘…If we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. ‘ –Thomas Jefferson, 1820

“Education reformers today, from Dewey to Coleman, seem to feel that the best answer is to wrest that self-government from the people.

“It is a big deal that a 16-year-old kid risked photographing test questions, knowing what kind of retribution could be brought to bear if she were caught.

“It is a big deal that a mother, equally aware of that retribution, would get those photos into the hands of a group of warriors who have connected the same dots I have connected – putting these test prompts into a completely different, stark, sobering context.

“Those who are screaming that anti-Common Core crusaders are taking these test questions out of context need to ask themselves if it is not they, themselves, who are taking them out of context.”    –Laureen Simper


Another commenter, Michelle, wrote:

“And this is how they test “critical thinking skills”: “Your argument must be based on ideas, concepts, and information that can be determined through analysis of the four passages.” Students must base their argument on four passages alone. No room for their own ideas. No place for the inclusion of information outside of those four passages. No opportunity to question the ideas and information given in the passages.

“One of the selections is a blog post. Yes, a blog post. “Why playing videogames better than reading books.” (That wasn’t a typo; that is the title of the post as written on the actual blog site.)  I wonder if they don’t refer to Wikipedia articles as well in other test questions.

“The other selection is from Steven Johnson’s book, “Everything Bad is Good for You” which, according to a review by The Guardian, asserts that TV, film, and video games make us smarter, yet the assertion fails miserably to back up those claims with actual science.

“So apparently, when Common Core proponents speak of “critical thinking skills” they don’t actually mean teaching children to think for themselves or to critically analyze arguments presented in selections of informational text or even to carefully select reliable and credible sources on which to gather information to form arguments. Instead, they mean teaching children to write argumentative essays by cutting and pasting information and ideas from blog posts and pseudo-science.

Our poor children.”


A dad named Jared wrote:

“I review hundreds of ELA books & tests every year.  I am seeing these kinds of two-sided “opinion” reading/writing assignments all the time now. Here’s how to recognize it:
– ‘Two sides’ of a controversial/political/social/environmental/values-oriented subject are presented.
– The material is billed as “balanced” because “two sides” of an issue are presented.
– The student reads both sides, then writes an essay promoting one side.

“… these kinds of “opinion” writing assignments are subject to bias by nature, because the author/publisher controls the entire argument.  In the examples I have seen, the author typically gives a reasonable-sounding Opinion A, and an unreasonable (straw man) Opinion B. The child naturally gravitates toward the more reasonable-sounding argument, and thinks she logically came to her own conclusion.

“If test question writers wanted to test a child’s writing ability, while avoiding straw men and indoctrination (intended or otherwise), they could simply avoid controversial subjects for their material.  Why don’t they?”

14 responses to “Reader Responses to Utah High School Student’s Screen Shots

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  1. The most interesting responses, which of course you have not chosen to include above, concerned the intellectual dishonesty of the authors of this blog. You represented the reading passages as an attempt at indoctrination, omitting the context, omitting the fact that there was undoubtedly another side of the issue represented by other readings that were not sent in. I can forgive an eighth-grader for this lapse in judgement, and failure to understand the purpose of the test. But I can think of no excuse for the authors of this blog. Your ethics are, to say the least, questionable.

    • Steven, thanks for your comment. You may not agree with me but please don’t call me dishonest. I published all the screen shots that were sent to me and interpreted them as I see them. The state office of education called me to ask me if I would be open to publishing the rest of the screen shots of this test question if they provided them. I said yes, of course. But they have not yet provided me with them.

      I suspect, however, that even with a fuller picture in front of us, you and I might still disagree about the acceptability of asking students to cut and paste and write essays based on articles that openly cast doubt on, or outright attack, the most fundamental aspect of education: the value of a book.

      • Christel, forgive me, but I must continue to talk about intellectual dishonesty. You represented one side of a two-sided argument as though it were the whole thing. You did this to make it look like the test was indoctrinating students. An intellectually honest response to the parent would have been to withhold judgement from the very beginning, until you had more information. Moreover, since you have “zero regrets” about what you have done, I do not in fact think that you are interested in a “light and healthy debate.” Your initial blog was widely reposted, and there is now less truthfulness in the world as a result. Yes, this is an ethical issue. Readers who aren’t already convinced can’t trust you to present the issue fairly. That’s a shame. But thanks for responding.

        • Steven, perhaps if and when the state office of education arms us with the rest of the test question, as they indicated they might do when they called me the other day, then we can discuss this further. Honesty is very important to me!

          So is giving students a good premise to begin with!

          There is no such thing as an unframed debate. Debates rest on certain assumptions, including the assumption that each side has a somewhat equal or valid argument. This test was framing the debate so heavily on the side of anti-book and pro-video side, which is illegitimate as a valid academic argument and inappropriate for children, in my opinion. That framing was the control structure, and pushed students in that direction. When a test question writer writes “both sides” to a given issue, they control the whole argument. The writer can provide a very reasonable-sounding opinion A, then give an unreasonable/exaggerated (straw man) argument for opinion B. Given the two “opinions,” students choose the more reasonable-sounding argument. In classical education, kids used to be taught how to spot a straw man, as well as other logical fallacies. Not now.

          A parent recently told me (and she served on Utah’s 15-parent test-question-vetting committee) that she felt the test was bent on controlling the whole argument. She said that on the SAGE essay questions there were ALWAYS three excerpts. This meant it would never give equal space to one of the sides. She felt the essays were predisposed to favor a certain conclusion if a student wanted a stronger essay. She pointed out that the test writers have to control the parameters pretty narrowly in order for the computer grading to work. Those were her words.

          I guess we could pester the state office to go ahead and release the rest so that we can discuss this more.

          And yes, I do value air and light and healthy debate on this issue. Please feel free to continue.

          • Christel, you simply don’t know how the test is framing the debate, since you only have 2 out of 4 readings. What was intellectually dishonest was publishing two readings as though they represented all the readings. Light and healthy debate relies on a foundation of transparency and fairness. I can’t debate you if you are withholding information from me to make your point appear stronger. No matter what the state provides you, it won’t change the fact that you distorted the truth (a partial presentation is a distortion, as any parent knows!) in your first post to make a case, and you’ve been unwilling to revise your post or reflect on your practices in later posts. I would not feel confident debating you, since I don’t trust you to argue fairly and transparently. Your blog, and the dozens of others similar to it, have substantially lowered the level of discourse and debate about Common Core. That’s a shame, since the dishonest opposition makes it more difficult for the honest opposition to get a hearing.

            I appreciate your responding. This is your blog, so you of course deserve and get the last word. No more from me on this. Good luck to you, and to the great state of Utah.

  2. Oh man, I had been an advocate of this website until I read this post. You neglected to post counterresponses that had stated that the following prompts listed were based on OPINION essays. How can you make such a fuss about extremism when the founders of this site are equally guilty?

    • Thank you for your comment. However, I stand by my decision to a) post the screen shots and b) post what I saw as the best responses out of well over a hundred comments received –and all are still available to read.

      Not everyone agrees in any given group– even within our anti-common core groups; is that not the whole point of defending local control rather than top down systems, especially within a movement like this one?

      There are legitimate questions here: point is, parents don’t agree on them and few agree with the state on them. Should children be given controversial issues to debate/write about, in the first place –on a test? And if they should be debating controversies in high-stakes tests, should one side of the issue be so far removed from the norm (like video games being superior to literacy; or asking whether renting could be superior to property ownership?)

      With the number of issues being raised– not only about the specific question here, but about the tests as a whole, who writes the tests, who deserves to see them and when (if ever) –and what the results mean to us as a society, are important enough that I have zero regrets about publishing what was sent to me.

      These issues need air, light and healthy debate. I appreciate all the comments, even those who are angry.

  3. On the test, the instructions say, “Write an essay that takes a position
    on which medium is most beneficial, books or video games. Your argument
    must be based on ideas, concepts and information that can be determined
    through analysis of the four passages. You should acknowledge and address
    the opposing viewpoint” But the passages they show have only one viewpoint.

    The instructions don’t say “give an opposing viewpoint to these
    passages”. The students are asked to take a position either for video
    games OR for books, but the passages are only for video games, so it is
    easier for a student to parrot the information and take the position in
    favor of video games. They can’t do any research to back up a position for books.
    They should only be asked to argue against video
    games if the passages are only in favor of video games. There is no
    argument or critical thinking if they write in favor of video games.

  4. Onika, as readers of this blog pointed out, we only have screen shots of two of the four reading passages (the ‘anti-book’ passages). Presumably, the student didn’t take screen shots of the other two passages, which are presumably ‘pro-book’. The student would have been required to read all passages carefully, and construct an argument using evidence from those passages. A good critical reading exercise, and light-years ahead of what I was required to do on standardized tests. Unfortunately, the student’s mother, and the authors of this blog, have not developed the habits of intellectual honesty that Common Core is designed to encourage. But I suspect that these habits are not particularly valued, or practiced, by MOST of their readers (not all, as the comments demonstrated), so their absence will not be mourned.

  5. I wrote this in the comments of the original post, but I’ll share my thoughts again here – Even if you do not have concerns about the topics, the method of having children extract from conclusions that are already given rather than having them form their own conclusions and then present those ideas in an essay proves that this is less challenging than before. By deriving arguments you are using more critical thinking than to merely extract the points that have been provided in the prompt. I’m grateful the examples were shared to show that these tests are not having our kids think but rather regurgitate. Oh, but we can’t have that “rote memorization” in math? *ironic*

    • Here’s the prompt: “Write an essay that takes a position on which medium is most beneficial, books or video games. Your argument must be based on ideas, concepts, and information that can be determined through analysis of the four passages. You should acknowledge and address the opposing viewpoints.” Explain to me please how this prompt requires “regurgitation” and not “forming their own conclusions”?

      • Steven, here’s how the test’s requiring regurgitation –and manipulating the concept of legitimate use of critical thinking skills.

        From the screen shots we’ve been shown, there is a lot more to draw on from the anti-book side than from the pro-book side. What are the students more likely to cut and paste from, to form their essays when the supply is so limited? More importantly, the question itself is unacceptable to me. Books are sacred. Period. End of story.

        If there ever was an common educational standard that all Americans ought to be able to agree upon, that might be it. Some things are too important, too sacred, to critically pick apart.

        Picking at the value of books is a waste of student thinking time, a falsehood. It’s like “debating” whether the earth is round or flat in our day and age. But that would at least not be damaging– it would just be pointless. Maybe a better analogy is that it’s like asking students to critically think and write about whether the terrorists of 911 were justified or not. You get my point– some questions are not acceptable in any school, ever. I strongly believe that the value of books to education is not negotiable.

        So, while it’s true that a good use of critical thinking means the ability to see another’s point of view and to build on common ground, important aspects of human relations –and while that is the grain of truth in the popularity of the phrase “critical thinking”– still, in today’s academic world, “critical thinking” has come to mean licentiousness– making any fact of equal worth, all truths of equal worth.

        In other words: schools (and most universities) now push moral/academic/religious relativity.

        So truth doesn’t exist, say the humanists; thus God cannot exist. All in the name of critical thinking. I realize this is outside the realm of your question, but it does relate. It goes to the issue of “is this line of reasoning/questioning that our students are called on to write, acceptable?”

        At what point do we call an exam question’s premise absurd? Is nothing to be called absurd?

        You are right that the question doesn’t say students MUST prove books are bad or video games are superior. But it is a manipulation away from the classic truth that books are one of the most priceless and enduring treasures of the human race. Rather than using thought to criticize or detect falsehoods, they are asking students to use writing to criticize– or at least to question– the authority of classic truth. It’s moral, religious, academic relativism, which is godlessness.

        Naiive people think that we should or can be inclusive of every idea and every behavior –and they call that inclusiveness compassion or open-mindedness. Progressives want students to academically shake hands with the devil. Their premise is that all “facts” are relative, arguable. I disagree. I won’t shake hands with the devil or call his point of view okay.

        In this example, students’ long-held, basic belief that books are to be reverenced, is shot in the foot. They HAVE to choose, and even if they choose to defend books, based solely on a pre-selected article (they may not use their own alternative readings and get a good grade on this computer-graded essay) –even if they choose that side, they must pretend to acknowledge that the other side could have an equally important and legitimate point. This is manipulation.

        Thank you for writing back.

        • Oh, Cristel. I could cry. You’ve only been shown the ‘anti-book’ screenshots, so you don’t have enough information to judge, let alone lead your readers to a judgement. (I’m not sure why this concept is so difficult for you to grasp.) This is why your argument is dishonest. And you were right earlier–we would never agree on anything else here. We live in different universes. I do believe that parents with your educational philosophy should in fact stick with home schooling, and I say that with all respect. I’m signing off for good now, with a link to a West Point thesis on the military’s use of video games in the classroom. I doubt that the author intended any harm to the American Way of Life. Goodbye.

          • Dave, thanks for sharing, but the article talks about the value of games in learning. How does that relate here? It doesn’t say games should replace literature. I have no problem with using educational games. I do have a problem with the argument against literature that students are facing in the test question, because games shouldn’t replace literature.

            Please read Dr. Terrence Moore’s book “The Storykillers” and you may understand why I am so opposed to asking kids to argue the pros and cons of video games over books, or books over video games.

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