James Bond, Agent 007 and Standardized Testing: Shaken, not Spurred

November 11, 2012 — Leave a comment


James Bond.


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and (surprise!) a metaphor for why relying on the standardized test is flawed.

Honestly, I was not expecting Skyfall, the latest James Bond blockbuster, to resonate with issues being discussed in educational reform today, but sitting in the darkened theatre, I suddenly heard the same concerns about the validity of tests used in assessing secret agents that I hear in assessing students.

Apparently, M-I 6 wrestles with the question: Do tests really measure ability?

Spoiler Alert! If you are someone who intends to see the film, I may be giving away a few facts; not major plot points, but a few incidental pieces of information. Bond Purists-stop reading now, please.

Before Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to work for M (Dame Judi Dench), he needs to pass a set of standardized performance tests. He is first put through a series of grueling fitness tests. He is tested on his ability to shoot a pistol at various distances in a firing range. Finally, he faces a series of psychological tests. The results of how well he succeeded in this battery of objective tests is initially kept from the audience, but the viewers are not surprised when he eventually returns to service.

Painting at the National Gallery in London

The film’s screenwriters saw fit to combine the concerns about the results of these tests with M-I 6’s concerns about Bond’s age. No scene is more direct in confronting Bond’s age than in his first meeting with the young gadget supplier “Q”. The filmmakers placed Bond at a British National Gallery sitting on a bench looking at J.M.W. Turner’s painting Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth To Be Broken Up, 1838 .

Turner’s symbolic message of the painting depicts the shift from sail power to coal engine, the billowing white clouds swirling like sails a stark contrast to the blackened smokestack of the tug in the forefront of the painting.  Q enters, sits next to Bond, and strikes up a conversation:

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship. being ignominiously haunted away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
Bond:  A bloody big ship. Excuse me.
Q: 007. I’m your new Quartermaster.
Bond: You must be joking.
Q:  Why, because I’m not wearing a lab coat?
Bond: Because you still have spots.
Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
Bond: Your competence is.
Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
Bond:  And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Skyfall (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1074638/quotes)

Of course, the M-I 6 tests are designed to determine if Bond is too old, if his brand of “boots on the ground” spying should be replaced by agents in command of newer technologies. And of course, M is obligated to submit Bond to the required standardized tests, tests given on one particular day. However, she is not obligated to act on the results of the tests.

M’s response, therefore, is to weigh what audiences know are the 50 years of evidence on Bond’s unconventional performance as a creative problem solver. She recognizes that Bond possesses those intangible qualities of initiative and drive, and while a standardized test does measure a level of ability, what makes Bond a valuable British agent is his ability to confound a standard.

Watching James Bond puzzle the test-driven establishment is a large part of the enjoyment for the audience. Agent 007 cannot be limited by a test score if he is going to save the free world.

Which brings me back to the shared message about testing from Skyfall and its application to education reform. The audience understands that the testing in Skyfall is flawed because of the limited results; standardized testing in education is similarly limited. Like M, educators should not let their students be defined by test scores from standardized tests, those single metric assessments given on one day. Like M, educators should pay more attention to having students develop problem-solving skills and to consider other assessments that measure students’ critical thinking skills.  Students should have the opportunity to be evaluated on the intangible qualities of initiative and drive through project-based learning. Like Agent 007, students should be allowed the opportunity to confound those standards measured by objective testing.

Oh, and maybe they could also ask for their chocolate milk shaken, not stirred.

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