Bart Simpson: Smarter? Balanced?

Bart take the Smarter Balanced testSpringfield, Oregon, has made national news for something other than being the birthplace of Bart Simpson. The Springfield School District Board of Education has openly rejected the state-mandated Smarter Balanced tests. Though unable to officially “opt-out” as a district, the Board has strongly encouraged its district families to refuse to allow their children to participate.

I haven’t seen the Simpson’s recently, but this is sounding a bit like one of its episodes. Imagine Bart and Lisa taking the Smarter Balanced test. Lisa would be stressed out. The test would dominate her world for weeks. There’d be sleepless nights, hair loss, perhaps counseling sessions. Bart, on the other hand, he’d get it. Despite Marge saying he’s neither smart nor balanced, Bart would understand that the test has no bearing on whether or not he’ll graduate, that he won’t even be at Springfield Elementary when the scores are finally released (and therefore Marge will probably never see them), and that the best way to stab at that teacher who made him stay in during recess is to punch in a bunch of random answers. Ask Bart or most any fifth grader about the Smarter Balanced test and they’ll tell you the same thing the Springfield Board of Education is saying: it’s a colossal waste of time.

The real Springfield isn’t some backwoods town rejecting the test because of some Ned Flanders-inspired Common Core conspiracy theory. Instead, it’s a thriving community of 60,000 just a stone’s throw from liberal-thinking Eugene and its University of Oregon, a driving force in education theory. With nearly 11,000 students, Springfield is the 13th largest school district in Oregon. Nor is the Board’s decision without consequences. Students who don’t test are counted among the number of students who don’t meet standards. If all of Springfield’s students reject the test, Springfield’s percentage of students meeting will appear as a zero. Furthermore, schools and districts that fall below a 95 percent participation rate on state tests are not eligible for awards or recognition. (State of Washington OSPI)

Smarter Balanced “was designed to compare districts and teachers, not to help students learn,” said one board member. I take it a step further by saying that the test itself so interferes with real instruction, its impact on learning should be classified along with bomb threats and snow days.

The Board also points out the cost. “These dollars could be spent in other, more productive areas for our students.” While the old Oregon test (OAKS) cost the state about $3 million annually, Smarter Balanced costs $27.3 million. For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s more than a 900% increase. Over ten years, the new test will cost taxpayers an extra quarter of a billion dollars. This in a state that has one of the highest class sizes in the nation and among the shortest school years. (Note: if I were a 5th grader taking the Smarter Balanced test, I’d have to spend the next several paragraphs explaining the details of that math, including the fact that I’ve rounded off that $300,000 because, well, I really don’t want to waste your time with trivialities…though I sense $300k is trivial only to bureaucrats and politicians.)

The Board also speaks to the fact that the test’s content and format is dramatically different than that of the SAT and ACT (which, when you get down to it, are the only standardized tests that have any real bearing on a student’s future), that the test is unfair, and that, well, it’s just too darn long. In my school, when we’re not sending kids off to show they’re both Smarter and more Balanced than their peers, we’re subjecting them to a long battery of data-driven tests with no relation to the classroom. Some kids even miss instruction so they can take the same test every week, over and over again, as if they’ll have magically changed in the four school days since the last one.

We’re told the test is important because it reveals which students need extra assistance and in which areas our instruction is deficient, but these are hollow excuses. Any good teacher can spot the real-world Barts without special testing. And when it comes to assessing our own instructional weaknesses, we were more able to discern them using the old OAKS test. In fact, data derived from the test benefits no one. Because my fifth graders have all moved on to middle school where it is unlikely anyone will examine their individual results when the data is finally released sometime next year, they will NEVER know their scores.

Concludes the Springfield board: “the Smarter Balanced test is neither smart nor balanced. It is poorly designed, discriminatory, often punitive and is of little benefit to our students. It does not inform student learning, and furthermore, does not make the best use of limited classroom time. It encumbers teachers and staff to focus both time and resources on an assessment that has shown little, if any, value.”

I say, three cheers for Springfield. I wish more school boards would stand with Springfield and reject this madness, but I guess maybe you have to have a little bit of Bart Simpson in your DNA for such bravado.

What does any of this have to do with read aloud plays? Well, if you’re using enriching activities such as plays, musicals, tensbooks, Storyworks magazine, read-alouds, hands-on Science, math games, or whatever it is you do to get kids excited about learning, three cheers to you. Don’t let testing stop you from teaching.

Happy directing!

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Ten Plays for Black History Month

MLK Plays Preview3 700x900The Daring Escape of Henry “Box” Brown is making a reappearance in the January issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. In addition to a new look with original illustrations, it means Storyworks subscribers have access to a host of top-notch CCSs comprehension activities via Scholastic’s web-based library. Pretty sweet. Coincidentally, the TpT version also just went through an update that adds a couple of comprehension activities and improved formatting, so you’re in luck either way.

But “Box” isn’t the only reader’s theater title suitable for Black History Month or MLK Day celebrations. In fact, I have a wide assortment. You can quickly preview four of them with my newest product: MLK Plays Free Preview Pack. It includes summaries and the first couple of pages of four MLK reader’s theater scripts including Martin’s Big Dream (The Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr.), MLK’s Freedom March (lovely historical fiction set against the March on Washington where King delivered his most famous speech), In the Jailhouse with Dr. King (another potent work of historical fiction set during the Bus Boycott), and Gonna Let it Shine (non-fiction about the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama). You can download the free PDF preview at TpT.

But there’s still more. Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab to uncover wonderful reader’s theater about Jackie Robinson, Claudette Colvin, the Greensboro Four, and others. In all cases, $3 gives the original purchaser reproduction rights to copy a full class set each year for use in his or her own classroom. It even includes school performance rights!

In my classroom, my 76 fifth graders will be learning and presenting six of these plays over the next two months. It’s going to make for a memorable Black History Month. Join us. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with engaging reader’s theater from ReadAloudPlays.com.

Happy directing!

Old Favorites

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!Imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a bright yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake! The history of the flag of the United States is a compelling story, but historians are divided as to the facts. Did Betsy Ross really create the first flag? This play, which was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America and later reprinted in the January 2002 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, encourages readers to become history sleuths. It includes the play script, a short reading supplement, a bubble quiz, a comprehension activity built around William Canby’s 1870 treatise on the matter, answer keys, and extension activities.

Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction? is the first of several old but new plays destined for TeachersPayTeachers this season. Having recently re-acquired full publishing rights to the plays in my book, Symbols of America, I’ll be packaging up all these old favorites for easy downloading on TpT.

As with all my plays, the Symbols collection is suitable for reader’s theater or full stage production. You can use the plays to build fluency and to satisfy a variety of Common Core standards in Literature and Informational Text. Best of all, the original purchaser is licensed to print one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

To preview or purchase Betsy Ross, click here. Be sure to check back often for “old but new plays” about MLK, Mount Rushmore, the War of 1812, World War Two, and more.

Happy directing!

Prevent Zombies: Teach the Arts!

Is standardized testing turning us into zombies? In my school we’ve taken to referring to our state-of-the-art music room as the “Musicless Room.” Oh, it still says “Music” on the door, but after elementary music was cut a few years ago, it’s since been used as a computer lab, a professional development site, a Title I room, and this coming year, a regular ed classroom. Hence the name.

Way back in 2008, President Obama criticized No Child Left Behind legislation because its overemphasis on core subjects contributed to the loss of arts education. “Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs,” read the President’s official statement on the Arts. Unfortunately, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, the Common Core, and the Smarter-Balanced test all seem to have heightened the emphasis on testing and, as a result, further undermined the Arts.

But there’s hope! If you need help convincing your administrator to allow more time for the Arts, including the use of Read Aloud Plays, here are ten studies compiled by the staff writers at OnlineColleges.net that show a strong connection between arts education and academics:

1. A 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership revealed that schoolchildren exposed to drama, music and dance are often more proficient at reading, writing, and math.

2. The 2006 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum study on art education showed a link between arts education and improved literacy skills.

3. In 2007, Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland published a study stating the arts don’t actually improve academic performance, but it shouldn’t matter.

4. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation called “A Portrait of the Visual Arts” argues that art education does more than just give students a creative outlet. It can actually help connect them to the larger world, ultimately improving community cohesion.

5. Teachers and students alike benefit from schools that have strong art climates, a 1999 study called “Learning In and Through the Arts” demonstrated.

6. The Center for Arts Education published a report in 2009 that suggests arts education may improve graduation rates.

7. A 2011 study called “Reinvesting in Arts Education” found that integrating arts with other subjects can help raise achievement levels.

8. A study of Missouri public schools in 2010 found that greater arts education led to fewer disciplinary infractions and higher attendance, graduation rates and test scores.

9. In “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain,” Johns Hopkins researchers shared findings showing that arts education can help rewire the brain in positive ways.

10. A 2009 survey, part of the “Nation’s Report Card: Arts 2008″ report, found that access to arts education opportunities hasn’t changed much in a decade.

Of course, all these studies really do is show that one can prove just about anything with a study. Just as these ten support arts education, there are numerous others that suggest there’s no correlation at all. This New York Times article does a pretty succinct job of debunking any notion that the Arts lead to improved scores in reading, writing, and math.

But so what? Whether or not the Arts contributes to better test scores shouldn’t be the question. I, for one, believe classroom activities that emphasize creativity build more well-rounded people and consequently better prepare students for professional life. While there are no doubt plenty of jobs out there that require workers to never deviate from a scripted set of instructions, there are also plenty of professions that value creative thinking, which is really what the Arts are all about. It was creative thinking that brought us Facebook, Starbucks, Dave Matthews Live at Red Rocks, and the device on which you’re reading this blog. If we want our schools to produce the next generation of worker drones and zombie-like consumers, then sure, let’s keep on “racing to the,” er, “top.” But if we want our schools to produce engineers, entrepreneurs, and the people who will solve the world’s problems, then for cryin’ out loud, let’s toss aside the textbooks and scripted programs and restore the Arts to our classrooms.

One easy method of embedding the Arts in the classroom while still fulfilling the Common Core requirements is to include Read Aloud Plays in your instruction (“drama” is referenced 47 times in the Common Core). For around three bucks you get performance rights (assuming you represent a school) and reproduction rights so that you can copy a full classroom set every year. Also, many of the plays come with supplemental activities or questioning strategies. For a fairly complete list of available titles, navigate through the tabs (at left if on a computer) or below (if on a mobile device).

Thank you for inspiring the next generation of creative thinkers and decision-makers!

Happy directing!

How to Counteract the Terrible Test

Read Aloud Play: A Retrieved ReformationI can gripe with the best of ‘em, and every year the teaching profession seems to provide plenty of new stuff to gripe about. My biggest gripe this year isn’t about class size (though I’ve had an exhausting 36 fourth graders), but instead, it’s about all the new bureaucracy associated with Common Core and the Smarter Balanced test. It seems to me our politicians and administrators have painted us into an academic corner. They’ve made teaching so complicated that it’s venturing toward the impossible

In my school, we’re currently mid-stream on the Smarter Balanced test. We’re finding the “performance task” to be a farce akin to safe-cracking and the test itself to be unnecessarily tricky and technologically unwieldy. It’s no wonder people all across the country are “opting-out”—156,000 in New York alone. The test is so bad and so unpopular that many of us are wondering if we’ll soon see the proverbial pendulum forced in the opposite direction. Let’s hope so. If you ask me, all this emphasis on testing is sucking the joy out of the classroom.

HBO’s “Tonight with John Oliver,” which you can find on YouTube, has a rant about standardized testing worth seeing (though it includes mature language). Oliver points out that the typical American public school student must complete as many as 130+ standardized tests during his or her school career. He also points out that since NCLB was enacted, our academic performance compared to the rest of the globe has actually decreased. So much for standardized testing saving the school system. Instead, the big winners in the testing game appear to be the test publishers. Corporate America. Go figure.

The experts say the point of all these tests is so that we can identify which of our students need extra help. Really? My hand is up! Pick me, please! I can already tell you which of my students need extra help. I can already tell you which of my students are unlikely to graduate. I can already tell you which of my students are likely to have a rough go of it in the real world. I don’t need a standardized test to figure it out. I can also tell you that testing these kids isn’t going to solve their problems.

I’m feeling sorry for my students right now. That they have to trudge down to our computer lab four times a week to endure this punishment is a travesty. I think they should love coming to school, so I’m trying to counteract the test by concluding the year with another bank of Read Aloud Plays. This week we’re splitting into three groups, assigning parts, and reading and re-reading our plays around a table and at home. Next week we’ll go outside into our courtyard and choreograph our on-stage movements, and a week or two later we’ll invite a couple of other classes to come watch. It’s simple, it’s academically valid, and it’s fun for kids–a nice contrast to the torture and unnecessary complexity of standardized testing.

Some enjoyable plays with which to end the year include Cyclops (that famed one-eyed monster!), O’ Henry’s A Retrieved Reformation (about safe-cracking ex-con Jimmy Valentine) and Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone (a spoof of A Tell-Tale Heart). If you have my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, try “The Nose”, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and “The Open Window.” Really, though, any of my Read Aloud Plays will do. This time of year it shouldn’t matter which CCSS or content strand they fit (although they fit many). This time of year, with that doggone standardized test soon behind us, it should just be for fun. For the love of reading. For the love of school.

Do something this month to make your kids love school. Try a set of Read Aloud Plays.

Let me help you get started: click here for a free download of “A Retrieved Reformation” (expired) and here for an always free copy of “Why Use Drama,” my popular guide to using reader’s theater in the classroom. If you like these products, please visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers and take a gander at my wide variety of classroom plays.

Happy directing!

Two New Plays (and Free Comprehension Stuff, Too!)

Click here to preview or purchase at TpT!I guess you can qualify me as a “Vitamin D Addict.” This time of year, the sun is typically obscured by the greyness of the southern Oregon winter, so whenever it’s out and abundant, I make it a habit to soak in as much as I can. I just can’t bring myself to come inside and work until it disappears behind my neighbor’s chimney. I haven’t been entirely unproductive, however. My Read Aloud Play, A Piece of String, has finally been uploaded to TeachersPayTeachers, and my new play about the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 appears this month in Scholastic’s Scope magazine.

“Newsies” follows a Polish immigrant named Aniela as she embarks on a brief career as a newsboy. Following the Spanish-American War, thousands of children like Ani went on strike to protest the way papers such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World passed their expenses down to the lowly newsboy. It’s a compelling story about kids and child labor similar in theme to my play about Lewis Hine (“Stolen Childhoods”). “Newsies” is exclusively available from my friends at Scope. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, my adaption of Guy De Maupassant’s classic short story, “A Piece of String,” tells about a habitual liar who gets hoisted on his own petard. When he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, his long history of lies make it impossible for him to prove his innocence. The play originally appeared in Scope’s Dec. 2013 edition. As with all my Scope and Storyworks plays, I’ve waited about a year to re-package it for TpT. Part of the reason this one took longer than usual—other than the sun’s pleasant cameo— is that I packaged it with a trio of free Common Core comprehension activities. You can download the free comprehension pack or the whole package. Middle school and early high school teacher s will find this play package to be a great way to introduce students to classic literature. Pair it with the original story to enhance engagement and comprehension. The lessons about good habits and a positive reputation will also play well with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Plus, your kids will enjoy using terms like “clodhopper” and “coot.”

Finally, Spring is a great time to engage students with The Checkbook Project. It’s math, it’s personal finance, it’s a behavior management program, and it’s entirely free. My own students started last week and are totally engrossed by it. Check it out by clicking on The Checkbook Project tab!

Happy directing!

Tongue In, Mouth Closed

Click here to preview or download this free sampler pack!McKenna, one of my most “with-it” fourth graders, came up with a new concept I think is worth sharing here. The class was working from my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs (2009, Scholastic), writing “Dialogue Sentences with Alternate Tags.” My book teaches kids to use the phrases “open mouth” and “closed mouth” to describe open and closing quotation marks. Such a concrete image seems to help them understand where to place the marks. But another necessary punctuation mark in a dialogue sentence is that little comma separating what was said from who said it.

“I’d sure like a package of Necco Assorted Wafers,” drooled Freddie as he stared through the front window of Candy’s Candy Shop.

That little comma between “wafers” and “drooled” is often neglected by young writers, and even when remembered, it’s sometimes incorrectly placed outside the closing quotes. Young McKenna came up with a solution by referring to is as “the tongue.” “You need to pull your tongue in before you close your mouth,” she said, and the rest of the class has quickly capitalized on it.

I’m not surprised. Because “Super Sentences” facilitates thoughtful discussion of and feedback about writing, my students are constantly coming up with unique perspectives—and great sentences. True, they’re still just 4th graders and therefore subject to all the forgetfulness and sloppiness familiar to intermediate and middle school teachers everywhere. But Super Sentences has certainly improved their writing skills. You can purchase and immediately download a PDF version of Super Sentences from Scholastic Teacher Express for just a few bucks. You can also download a free sampler of Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraph here.

In an era when we seem to be over-complicating teaching to the point that we’re nearly dysfunctional, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs is simple, easy-to-use, and fun to teach. It’s as straight forward as “pulling your tongue in before you close your mouth.”

Pairing Plays and Picture Books for Black History Month

Read on for a free Common Core activityWith Black History Month upon us, two bits of news caught my eye last week: the State of South Carolina issued a stirring acknowledgement of the injustices suffered by African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s when it apologized to “The Friendship Nine,” nine young men who, in 1961, were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang simply for participating in a Sit-in.

The second item was an excellent post at the Center for Teaching Quality. Educator Liz Prather writes that the controversial elements of the recently-released Selma movie makes the film “a great discussion engine for subjects like non-violent activism, Dr. King, and the civil rights movement.” The Common Core, notes Prather, requires that we teach students to “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” While the Selma movie is too mature for elementary and middle school students, it got me thinking about pairing Read Aloud Plays with developmentally-appropriate books and films so to compare and contrast point of view. Here are a few:

* The Disney movie, Selma, Lord Selma, and the Read Aloud Play, Gonna Let it Shine.
* My play from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, The Girl Who Got Arrested, and Phillip Hoose’s book about Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice.
*Sitting Down for Dr. King, which depicts the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins of 1960, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book, Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down.
* Peter Golenbrock’s book, Teammates, depicting the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and the Read Aloud Play, How Jackie Changed America.
* We Shall Overcome, my play about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and Cynthia Levinson’s non-fiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.
*Days of Jubilee, by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, and my play, Freedom for the First Time, which is based on slave narratives from the Civil War.
*The Read Aloud Play, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, and Ellen Levine’s book, Henry’s Freedom Box.

To get your classroom discussion going, I’ve developed a simple short-answer comparison activity covering Craft & Structure (Literature item 6 and Informational Text item 6). You can download it for free here and use it with my plays and any paired text to satisfy these standards by having students “analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic.”

Happy directing!

Thanks!

SCOPE-110113-PlayAs we wrap up 2014, I just want to thank you for making this the best year yet for Read Aloud Plays. In the coming year, watch for a variety of new plays to become available including A Piece of String, which was originally published in the Nov. 2013 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and I Have a Dream, the story of Martin Luther King’s childhood, which originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Storyworks. I also plan to revamp the formatting on nearly all my plays, making sure that each comes with a comprehension activity designed to help your students meet the Common Core. No need to wait to purchase them, however. One of the great features on TeachersPayTeachers is that buyers can download updated versions without additional charge. Each time I update a play, I’ll let you know that a new version is available. Here’s to a great 2015 full of fluency-building reader’s theater for the classroom!

Happy directing!

Could This Guy Pass the Smarter Test?

Would Will hunting pass the Smarter Balanced test?Am I wrong, or is the title of the nation’s new standardized test grammatically incorrect? Did the benevolent creators of this new system mean to say the test represents a “smarter balance” when compared to previous tests? If so, shouldn’t they have said balance—a noun—rather than balanced, a verb? Or maybe they meant smartly balanced, which makes me wonder why they used an adjective rather than an adverb.

Or perhaps they mean this fancy new test is both smarter and balanced? No doubt someone in the marketing department didn’t like the way the punctuation looked in the logo. Apparently, neither hyphens nor commas compel us to buy. Personally, I suspect they probably want the test to represent a Smart Balance, but when they discovered that such a moniker connotes a “smooth buttery consistency,” well, that’s when the trouble surely began.Smart-Balance or Smarter-Balanced?

Whether smartly balanced, a smarter balance, or smarter-balanced, one thing’s for sure: the new test is giving teachers and admins the heebie jeebies pretty much everywhere. I recently attended a Smarter Balanced workshop put on by the Oregon Department of Education covering details of the assessment. Here are a few take-aways:

*It’s finally time to give up teaching cursive. The tests, regardless of subject, will evaluate keyboarding skills as much or more than anything else. (I suspect even Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting would have a hard time passing the Smarter math test. Those complex math proofs he delineates on the chalkboard? He’d have to type them on a computer screen using numbers and words, not those alien symbols only true math geeks understand.) What you can do now: have your students word process everything–and in all subjects. Be sure, too, to practice highlighting individual sentences. Pity the school that has fallen behind technologically.

* Say “so long” to Romeo & Juliet. There will be greater emphasis placed on non-fiction texts. According the the Dept. of Ed: the higher the grade level, the more students should be reading non-fiction. What to do now: have your students read (and write) more non-fiction.

* Dust off the MLA Handbook. The uptick in plagiarism during the digital age has the experts all worked up about citing sources. On the test, students will be expected to recall direct quotations from a given text and use phrases such as “According to” when referring back to them. What to do now: lots of persuasive reading and writing. Storyworks magazine has a nice “debate” activity in every issue in which students must read a non-fiction text and then debate (in writing) each side of a given argument. That’s good practice for the test.

* Teach them to be sleuths. Having the right answer won’t be enough anymore. Students have to be able to identify the evidence. Where in the text did they find the information necessary to answer the question? What to do now: teach students to highlight evidence when completing comprehension activities or discussing what they’ve read.

* Do you validate? What you’re teaching now is still worthwhile. The writing process: still valid. Higher level taxonomy: still valid (though they’ve abandoned Bloom’s for what appears to be a decent system called “Depth of Knowledge” or DOK). And here comes my shameless plug: if you use my daily writing program, Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs, you’re already teaching to certain elements of the test. Not only does SSPP teach standard writing skills, it also asks kids to highlight and color code specific kinds of sentences. At my school, students word-process their paragraphs and then highlight and color code each sentence. Super Sentences also teaches sentence structures using the “According to” and “In my opinion” phrasing, as well as how to use direct and indirect quotations.

Whether smartly balanced or just a smooth, buttery consistency, I’m confident the Smarter Balanced test won’t be around forever. It’s the fourth standardized testing system implemented during my twenty-plus year career. If history has anything to say about it, we’ll be talking about something different in six or seven years. Consider this, when the sons and daughters of politicians go home and say, “I flunked the smarter test,” something’s gonna give. In the meantime, the skills the test evaluates are indeed important, so we all may as well just jump right in.