Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Take This Test and Shove It

Should a Miami Teenager Have to Deconstruct a Poetic Account of Tracking Moose in Alaska to Get a High School Diploma?

Publication Date: 2003-02-21

Parents of kids facing graduation tests should take a close look at the questions being asked--and then ask a few questions of their own.

Don't miss the author's reaction to what Florida has done with his work. See below.

Reading test - grade 10 This story [sic] is a sample Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading exam for the 10th grade. After reading the story [sic], answer the six questions that follow.


By John Haines

To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read. The pages turn as the wind blows; the characters shift and the images formed by their combinations change in meaning, but the language remains the same. It is a shadow language, spoken by things that have gone by and will come again. The same text has been written there for thousands of years, though I was not here, and will not be here in winters to come, to read it. These seemingly random ways, these paths, these beds, these footprints, these hard, round pellets in the snow: they all have meaning. Dark things may be written there, news of other lives, their sorties and excursions, their terrors and deaths.

I was walking home from Redmond Creek one morning late in January. On a divide between two watersheds, I came upon the scene of a battle between a moose and three wolves. The story was written plainly in the snow at my feet. The wolves had come in from the west, following an old trail from the Salcha River, and had found the moose feeding in an open stretch of the overgrown road I was walking.

The sign was fresh, it must have happened the night before.

The snow was torn up, with chunks of frozen moss and broken sticks scattered about; here and there, swatches of moose hair. A confusion of tracks in the trampled snow -- the splayed, stabbing feet of the moose, the big, furred pads and spread toenails of the wolves.

I walked on, watching the snow. The moose was large and alone, almost certainly a bull. In one place he backed himself into a low, brush-hung bank to protect his rear. The wolves moved away from him -- those moose feet are dangerous. The moose turned, ran on for fifty yards, and the fight began again. It became a running, broken flight that went on for nearly half a mile in the changing, rutted terrain, the red morning light coming across the hills from the sun low in the south. A pattern shifting and uncertain; the wolves relenting, running out into the brush in a wide circle, and closing again: another patch of moose hair in the trodden snow.

I felt that I knew those wolves. I had seen their tracks several times before during that winter, and once they had taken a marten from one of my traps.

I believed them to be a female and two nearly grown pups. If I was right, she may have been teaching them how to hunt, and all that turmoil in the snow may have been the serious play of things that must kill to live. But I saw no blood sign that morning, and the moose seemed to have gotten the better of the fight.

At the end of it he plunged away into thick alder brush. I saw his tracks, moving more slowly now, as he climbed through a low saddle, going north in the shallow, unbroken snow. The three wolves trotted east toward Banner Creek.

What might have been silence, an unwritten page, an absence, spoke to me as clearly as if I had been there to see it. I have imagined a man who might live as the coldest scholar on earth, who followed each clue in the snow, writing a book as he went. It would be the history of snow, the book of winter. A thousand-year text to be read by a people hunting these hills in a distant time. Who was here, and who has gone? What were their names? What did they kill and eat? Whom did they leave behind?

Adaption of "Snow" is from The Stars, The Snow, The Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness by John Haines.

Questions. Base your answers on "Snow."

1. What does the author mean by this sentence from the essay?

These seemingly random ways, these paths, these beds, these footprints, these hard, round pellets in the snow: they all have meaning.

a) Signs in the snow lead to different interpretations of the truth

b) Signs in the snow lead to different directions in the wilderness

c) Patterns in the snow can be connected to form a story of nature

d) Patterns in the snow can be connected to lead the observer to safety

Objective: Student selects and uses strategies to understand words and text, and to make and confirm inferences from what is read.

2. According to the author, which word best describes the story of snow?

a) Frightening
b) Random
c) Timeless
d) Violent

Student determines the main idea and identifies relevant details, methods of development, and their effectiveness in a variety of types of written material.

3. Which writing strategy does the author employ to express his views about snow?

a) Use of complex plot
b) Use of descriptive language
c) Development of varied structure
d) Development of believable characters

Objective:Student determines the main idea and identifies relevant details, method of development, and their effectiveness in a variety of types of written material.

4. After examining the moose's tracks, the author concluded that the moose was

a) Cold
b) Confused
c) Large
d) Weak

Objective: Student recognizes cause-and-effect relationships in literary texts.

5. How does the author create suspense in relating the story about the animals in the snow?

a) By holding back information
b) By constantly updating the plot
c) Through detailed description
d) Through frequent use of adjectives

Objective: Student analyzes the effectiveness of complex elements of plot, such as setting, major events, problems, conflicts, and resolutions.
Ohanian Comment: Pardon me, but does the Florida State Department of Education really decree that essays have "plots," which include such "complex elements" as "setting, major events, problems, conflicts, and resolutions?" Is E. B. White rolling over in his grave?

6. What is the mood of the opening and closing paragraphs?
a) Chaotic
b) Curious
c) Forlorn
d) Thoughtful

Objective: Student analyzes the effectiveness of complex elements of plot, such as setting, major events, problems, conflicts, and resolutions.

Note: This is what is known as a 'sample' item; it does not mean that the actual item has ever been used on a test. It does mean that this is the type of loony item found on Florida tests. Florida test writers turn a respectable piece of prose into something bizarre. For starters, they can't decide whether it's a story or an essay, and things go downhill from there. This type of questioning goes against everything we know about why people read or what they hope to get out of what they read.

I sent the questions to the author of the passage (who is a professor at the University of Alaska). Here is his response:

Dear Susan,

Thank you for the very weird pages from Florida education. I could hardly believe what I read, and then simply laughed. I gave copies to my students, and they laughed too! What is going on here? Education? I don't think so.

My regards,

John Haines

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.