Blowing Off the Test: Why Educators Should Pay Attention to the NFL

Posted by on Apr 30, 2012 in Everyday Literacies
Blowing Off the Test: Why Educators Should Pay Attention to the NFL

Really. You, Ms. 52 year old third grade teacher, you should start following the National Football League. Why? Because this week Morris Claiborne became breaking news when he scored a 4 out of 50 on the “Wonderlic” test, a kind of IQ exam given to all college football players entering the NFL Draft. I watch football but didn’t know about the Wonderlic until I heard about Claiborne’s results, the second lowest score of all time.

But it gets more complicated and interesting. This isn’t just another case of a failing public school system, or special treatment for college “student-athletes.” You see, Claiborne punked the test— yeah, he blew it off!

“They say it’s an IQ test,” Claiborne added.  “I came to the Combine for football.  I looked at the test, and wasn’t any questions about football.  I didn’t see no point in the test.  I’m not in school anymore.  I didn’t complete it.  I only finished 15 or 18 questions.” Source

Every spring, teachers administer lots and lots of tests. What if one of your students decided to do what Claiborne did? Would you punish him? Applaud her? Does it ever happen?

Make no mistake, this was definitely a “high-stakes” test. One part of the “Combine,” (the NFL’s version of “testing month”) where a good performance can make a difference in millions of dollars.

The Combine is a week long event where the best of the best college football players entering the NFL draft go to be examined and evaluated for potential value to a professional football team. The documentary Two Days in April (learn more or watch) shows the Combine in detail, following four players as they experience the high stakes environment. Their physical abilities are systematically quantified (ex. how fast can he run?, how high can he jump?) in an intensive and sometimes humiliating manner (see photo of Tom Brady above….) In the documentary, one player, also in his underwear, stands in the front of a giant room full of scouts and compares the experience to being in a cattle market.

All of the players go through this, including Claiborne, but it doesn’t make it any easier. After having his body measured and weighed, his blood and urine examined, and his every movement scrutinized and deconstructed, Claiborne was given the IQ test composed of 50 increasingly more difficult questions and 12 minutes to answer as many as he could.

This is how I picture it, the clock is ticking, it’s quiet, but Claiborne is distracted by a nagging thought, that this is all bullshit.

How many children have had this thought while taking standardized tests, year after year? Claiborne, sifting through the problems for some sort of relevance to his life as a football player, decided it had nothing to do with him and more or less boycotted it. I wouldn’t be surprised if his only regret was that he answered any of the questions.

Football is supposedly a barbaric sport full of big, neckless assassins and overweight meatheads but the scouting of “intelligence” in the NFL is easy to justify. Non-fans should understand that the game is surprisingly complex. I’ve heard some compare football to chess (and soccer to checkers….) but this only reinforces a player as “dumb jock” model, where the real brains on the team is the coach. The chess metaphor implies that one mastermind (the coach) positions specialized players on the board/field and conceives of complicated strategies (“plays” and “game-plans”) for maximum benefit to win the game. The model falls flat because players have to be able to make complex decisions on the field that the coaches can’t do for them. Players have to be smart, and while there is a recognizable instinct for the game– the proverbial “football IQ”– coaches seem to want “real” intelligence. If you believe this can be measured, you give these player a quick and telling IQ test.

What if Andrew Luck, the number one pick in this year’s draft, decided that he was going to boycott the test by not answer the questions or purposely missing them all (an achievement in itself, if you think about it). Luck, a Stanford graduate and quarterback (and can guess what color he is?) is stereotypically supposed to do well on these things and got a 37 out of 50, 13 points higher than the average score of 24. While Claiborne’s score (4 out of 50), plus his comments afterwards, indicate that he purposely sabotaged the test, racist attitudes and blind faith in the validity of IQ tests have lead many people to believe that the score was the best this African American jock could accomplish. The general consensus on the sports comment boards is that Claiborne is one big idiot. They quote him and ridicule the language he uses: “he obviously wasn’t an English major” Har, har har! A score of 10, according to Wonderlic Inc., means that the person is “literate” so Claiborne’s 4 indicates that he is completely illiterate. Oh, if life were this simple to assess…..

Contrary to the commonsense notion of blowing off a test, Claiborne’s actions didn’t backfire on him. His low score didn’t scare away teams and, in fact, the Dallas Cowboys traded up to acquire him. In short, he was not punished. If Luck had decided to bomb the test, no one would have punished him either. He would have been picked first no matter what the score. But Luck DID take the test, he complied— like a nice boy should— perhaps because he was being cooperative, maybe because he thought he’d do well, but probably because the testing system has always favored him. No doubt, that’s how he got into Stanford to begin with and, really, why would he bite the hand that has always fed him? By taking the test, he validates it, makes it “real.”

So who is smarter, more literate, Luck or Claiborne? In the Wonderlic world, Luck is 33 points smarter. In the world of Paulo Freire, Claiborne is more critically conscious. Reading the word vs reading the world— different measuring sticks, indeed.

The real issue is not if testing tests something– it certainly does– but can it predict success. Can the SAT predict success in college? Can the Wonderlic predict success in the NFL?

And what are the consequences for not doing well on a test?

In education there is a “boycott the test” movement however it is small and mainly underground because the consequences for sabotaging the testing industry are great and profound. The test in itself is usually not the complaint. The problem is, and every teacher knows this, is that the testing industry has taken control over all decision making in the schools and district. Organizations such as FairTest question the validity and reliability of standardized tests which are generally “norm-referenced” (bell curve) and have failing outcomes built into the design of the test.

Technically, the Wonderlic appears to be a “criterion referenced” test— like a driver’s license test where it is possible (through unlikely…) that everyone could get a perfect score. (See sample Wonderlic questions.) Unlike a driver’s license test, the Wonderlic doesn’t have a “passing” score– it’s basically “the higher, the better”– so it ultimately functions more like a norm-referenced test like the SAT or the Stanford Binet Intelligence Quotient.

Like many tests, there seems to be little to no correlation between the Wonderlic test and the predictability of success in the NFL. There’s just too many factors and the Combine can only give measurements on some of these attributes such as speed, strength, agility, endurance. What about the other intangibles: history, discipline, toughness, interpersonal skills, communication skills, emotional disposition, competitiveness, match with a team or system, and countless others. Perhaps the biggest factor for success in such a violent game is avoiding injury– to be lucky.

Without really knowing it, Claiborne more or less advocated for a “portfolio” approach to testing: “if you want to know how well I play football, watch me play the game.” And his portfolio is quite good.

Sports star can influence people in ways that “experts” cannot. I wonder how many kids next year will decide to “pull a Claiborne” when it is time for spring testing season. After all, there was no monetary consequences for his decision. He has been ridiculed by the masses but hey, Claiborne is more athletically gifted, and now richer, than all of those critics. The only thing they can do is shove their high(er) test scores in Claiborne’s face. Sour grapes.

What Claiborne did was quite critical in the academic sense. He disrupted the flow of the draft proceedings. He knew the test wasn’t going to help him but it could definitely hurt him. So why participate?  By saying “no” to the test, he did something that millions of children can’t even imagine doing even though the results of the test more or less places them into dismal education and career tracks. Maybe now they can imagine a spring without testing.

Some might argue that what Claiborne did was an easy way out. It’s hard to score in the 30’s or 40’s on a test like the Wonderlic and easy to do nothing, to blow it off. But I would argue that the easiest thing to do would be to do what you’re told. Comply at all times. Jump when they tell you to jump (and the scouts write down the results). “Answer these questions when I say… NOW.” I doubt Claiborne would have gotten a higher than average score but his response was admirable— and he looked a whole lot smarter to me by doing it.