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The Writer Who Couldn’t Answer Standardized Test Questions About Her Own Work

Yesterday I posted a review of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories called The Cask of Amontillado. At the end of my review I commented that the story has been analyzed to death regarding the “meaning” of the story and what the story may signify or represent. My final comment was to wonder what Poe would say if we were able to ask him directly. My thought is that he would say it was just a story!

Today I saw an article about a poet that couldn’t answer standardized test questions about her own poems! The article is interesting to say the least, particularly considering the poet also raised the same issue back in 2017! The link to the 2019 article is at the bottom of this post as well at the link to her 2017 diatribe on the same topic.

So, it makes me wonder – are we attributing too much to the things we read? Are we crediting or discrediting authors with things they didn’t intend? I understand that people read books through their own lens – allowing their life and experiences to interact with the story (so to speak) – which ultimately affects how we individually perceive a story. My tag line for my blog is “No one ever reads the same book” for exactly this reason. However, perhaps we should be careful about definitively attributing something to a piece of work without confirming with the author or at least qualifying the attribution as a personal theory.

The author from this particular article and situation, Sara Holbrook, summarizes her thoughts about the ridiculous assertions about her work this way:

Any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich. Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can’t protest. But I’m not dead.

I know this particular situation is relative to test questions on standardized exams, but more generically, what do you think about analyses of other’s work, particularly when we can no longer ask the author themselves what they really meant? I enjoy reading analyses of older works, mainly because the writing styles can sometimes be difficult to understand and I’m curious if I have “missed something” in the narrative. But, maybe I didn’t actually miss a thing and the analyses I read are way off base.

Maybe sometimes it is just a story!

Read the articles. I’d love to know what you think.

2019 Forbes article:

2017 HuffPost article:



34 thoughts on “The Writer Who Couldn’t Answer Standardized Test Questions About Her Own Work

  1. I love your comments here. There have been times when I’ve either read an analysis of a classic book or also of something contemporary and I’ve felt just like Sara Holbrook, that it was a big baloney sandwich. I also love your tag line – “No one ever reads the same book.” It reminds me of a quote I read from an interview of Michael Stipe from the band REM. One of their popular songs was “Fall on Me” which everyone said was about acid rain. The interviewer asked him about the song and he said it could mean whatever anyone was listening to it thought it meant. I have always liked that. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Writing, in most all its forms, is just another form of art and all art is subjective. People will interact with it and experience it in their own way. They will see things in it that means something to them that may not necessarily mean anything to someone else. I think a good example of this is music. I’ve read where some musicians won’t even talk about what the meaning behind a song is or the basis for them writing it because it is meant for the listener to interpret for themselves. Art, once it is released to the world, gains a life and a personality of its own. Something that grows and morphs with each person that crosses paths with it. Writing is the exact same. Sure, there are words with specific meanings in writing, but the words they are paired with or the tone used with them can alter that meaning or have almost nothing to do with the technical definitions at all and are only used to create an impression of something entirely different. It is this topic that made high school English classes so horrible for me no matter how much I love reading. You are expected to provide a right answer to a mostly subjective question.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Well said! This is exactly why I agree with this author that testing students on “correct” or “incorrect” answers about her work is absurd to say the least, when she can’t even answer the question. Appreciation, understanding and the basic experience of art in all forms is definitely subjective.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Are we maybe putting too much emphasis on pointless and stressful standardized tests? Which most teachers seem to despise for being developmentally inappropriate?

    You haven’t LIVED till you’ve seen a seven-year-old get a panic attack and nosebleed over the freaking FSA. 😢🤬

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I definitely understand. I was valedictorian of my high school and went on to get a degree in engineering. I always did very well in school at all levels – but my standardized test scores in grade school never reflected my ability or academic achievements outside of testing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read those articles. I’ve got kids in school dealing with the slog of standardized testing. My older son had more test hours in middle school than I had for the bar exam. I find that to be a bit much. But my feelings about standardized testing are another post for another day!

    I was an English major. It always bothered me when we were asked to analyze a work and give our thoughts on what the author was trying to communicate, what the author was thinking. I was always, “I don’t know, I wasn’t there in his/her head!” Honestly, I don’t think we can ever know for sure what a writer was trying to communicate, what the intent was. I do think analysis can be helpful in understanding historical context, things like that. But I generally just read for enjoyment and don’t give a lot of thought as to deeper meaning most days. I did enough reading for intent in undergrad and law school.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Agree! I have no issues with talking about what I personally thought about a story or how a story made me feel – but I don’t have a crystal ball for anything else!! 🔮

    And yes, standardized testing in and of itself is definitely a topic all its own. I have a cousin that was a elementary school principal and she says the only people that benefit from standardized testing are the testing companies. It’s all about $$$.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on education pathways and commented:
    This article hits me hard on two levels. One is OVERTESTING! What are we doing when we contrive in standardized tests to create “gotcha” questions that the author of a work can not even answer? The other is a reader’s understanding of a piece. To comment on a work of literature is to bring your own background knowledge to the work. It should affect each reader in a different way. This is not to say that we cannot discuss the possible intended meaning by the author, but to claim authoritatively from a reading what another person thinks is hubris. My view of standardized tests is that you are right, KayCKay; just listen for the cha-ching echoing in the hallowed halls of learning.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I am glad that you said that and bought this up. I was in creative writing in high school and we had to write a story and had the class come up with ideas on what the story is about. Some people bought up ideas about my story that I didn’t even think about and I thought that was pretty amazing. Also I will be reading more Edgar Allen Poe

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I think sometimes it’s definitely just a story and I think sometimes it’s purposeful. I love that the author called it a baloney sandwich though!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I went to school with a couple of people with a similar path.
    I just feel like standardized testing 1) it’s too much pressure on small kids; and 2) Paints everyone with the same brush. Ie, a good friend of my 8 yr old receives extra help in English… because it’s his THIRD language. His standardized test scores in language may be lower, but he can run linguistic circles around my son.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I remember this one time back in college when I was taking a painting class I forgot to paint a bow to go along with a violin. Iirc, the teacher took the lack of a bow to have some deep psychological meaning about people often feeling like they’re lacking something in their life and praised me for my insight, but, I literally just forgot to paint a bow.

    Definitely not surprised at people reading a bunch of stuff into other people’s work that they didn’t intend!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Wow! I guess it is kind of neat in a way to see what others think… but it in your situation that is kind of funny because the teacher was way off.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Lol! Yeah. Decided for the sake of my grade in that instance to just go along with it. But I had a laugh with a few of my classmates later when she wasn’t around to listen. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I was just having a conversation about standardized testing with a friend the other day! There’s no place for interpretation in a test that dictates you to choose the “best” answer because, as you said, it’s a subjective experience. My friend and I ended up conspiring that standardized testing is basically a form of subtle mind control in order to get us to think how the government wants us to 😂.
    As for trying to analyze themes in text that weren’t intentional, it’s definitely something I’m guilty of! The most recent example I can think of this was when I was reading the book Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I was desperately trying to uncover the deeper meaning of the book, refusing to believe it was just a silly story about bread, and even making myself feel stupid for not being able to figure it out hahaha. It was a good lesson that not all writing—and art in general—has to be so philosophical. Sometimes, the arts can just be enjoyed as pure entertainment.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Interesting. Sometimes I do see themes in people’s stories (sometimes I don’t though). I have read some author interviews, so sometimes on the blog I might say “the author based X on X” and that’s from something they said, although when I say “I see the theme of X in the story” that might just be me seeing something into it.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I do the same. I think as long as we state our thoughts as opinions and not facts that is fine. As a matter of fact I think it’s neat to see how differently folks interpret what they read. But it’s all opinion unless the author says otherwise. 🤗


  18. It’s impossible to know what an author meant. If you ask authors, they lie or simply make stuff up.

    All we can say is what the text might mean.

    But more importantly, the insight that you gained from reading the text is more valuable than what anybody else thinks, regardless of whether your insight is accurate or not.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I agree people read (no puns intended) too much into things. I’ve written poems and I am working on a few story ideas. There was a professor that would come into my old job that said she’d like to read a few. So I brought in my STORM poem which was published in the anthology (if I remember right) Written In Stone

    She asked me if it was about drugs. I said no. The poem is actually a straight up poem about a rain storm (I wrote it before work during breakfast before i went next door to start my shift)

    What I am curious to find out is what exactly are these questions (I still have to read the articles, but I see at least I think its the 2017 article that has some of the questions.

    I guess now all writers will have to check out a standard testing pack and make sure we would be able to answer those questions. I think even if the author is still alive, don’t jump into assuming or analyzing what we actually mean. Oh that’s a metaphor for (whatever)

    Remember ‘Assume only makes an ass out of you and me’ (also you could offend someone, and we don’t want to do that, do we??) Now I don’t offend easily but when she thought it was about drugs I think I was a bit offended… after all usually there are some tell tale signs someone is. (I had none of them other than maybe dark circles under my eyes depending on time of month and amount of sleep I got)

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I liked your poem! I am a reader, not a writer, and I very much appreciate folks that can put pen to paper! AWESOME!

    I agree with what you said about assuming… I’m all about asking questions and seeking truth/facts. I think people can definitely read things in different ways, but when an author tells you NO, that wasn’t what it was about then that is that! Or at least it should be.


  21. I remember as a 12 year old feeling bewildered by the Intention question especially as there was apparently only one right answer. I knew from experience that a writer’s intention was probably to have fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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