Peter Pringle's America: The real point of the pencil

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN Luddites were in something of a panic last week when it seemed that the government was threatening the future of the pencil.

In the name of progress, the Educational Testing Service, which produces 9 million multiple-choice exams each year for high-school students wanting to go to university, or professionals seeking licences to operate, is phasing out standardised paper and pencil tests and replacing them with computers.

Instead of sitting in a room with hundreds of others on an appointed day, the examinee will be able to select one of 100 or so days in the year, go in at any time, take the test at the computer and receive an instant result. No nail-biting waiting period, keeping a vigil for the postman.

Fond as I am of the pencil - no one can forget their first pencil box - this seems like real progress to me. Years after being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in examination rooms, I still have nightmares about being inadequately prepared. Any move to create a less stressful atmosphere must be applauded.

Also, the idea that the pencil is about to be rubbed out seems fanciful. Given that each young or adult American must buy, on average, at least one pencil a year for some reason or another, and the population of the US is more than a quarter of a billion, loss of demand for nine million pencils would hardly be the writing on the wall.

But then, like everything else in America, the pencil has a powerful lobby. Apart from the makers, there is the American Pencil Collectors Society, which includes a man from North Dakota with more than 25,000 pencils. Another member in Texas has a passion for used pencils. Others concentrate on theories about psychological profiles of other people's pencils, believing they provide clues to an individual's personality. Bullies chew pencils, nerds suck them, or something of the sort.

I learnt about these strange people courtesy of a professor of engineering named Henry Petroski, from Duke University in North Carolina. A few years ago he became so taken with the technically sweet design of the pencil that he was moved to write a book alluringly entitled, The Pencil, which stretches to a phenomenal 434 pages.

Professor Petroski's calm and reassuring voice came through the clamour of the pencil-lovers' panic. The pencil is not about to be rubbed out, he announced in the weekly New Republic magazine. In fact the pencil has long been recognised as a great survivor, the professor declared.

Look at the record since the pencil's birth in the middle of the 16th century, he suggested. Natural resources are no problem. The two essential ingredients of the pencil are wood and graphite. When the original graphite mine in Britain's Lake District was exhausted, pencil makers found an even bigger lode in Siberia. The type and quality of the wood is crucial to a good pencil. In the beginning, red cedar from the south- eastern US was the wood of choice. When those supplies ran out, the makers turned to the cedars on the West Coast, and that is the wood found in a good Number Two pencil today.

The humble pencil has also survived technological change, including the introduction of the propelling pencil, the fountain pen, the ball-point, the typewriter and the computer. Professor Petroski confidently predicted that the pencil will survive the revamping of educational tests. 'There are some things, simply, that technology cannot improve on. Compared to the handy, durable, effective pencil, the mouse is, well, a mouse.'

Of course, but there are more important issues to consider than the survival of the pencil in the US Government's move to computerise exams. For example, will the new tests be able to overcome long-held objections about bias against female and minority students? In the standard university entrance test, critics say the reason women score 50 points lower than men on average and blacks score 200 points lower than whites is that the tests are culturally biased. Now they could be technologically biased. What about the obvious handicap of a poor child from a city school with few computers?

On the other hand, the computer tests will give students a greater range of options. If the student answers a set of questions correctly, the computer will automatically set harder ones with higher scores. Weaker students should be able to escape exam trauma because they can be fed simpler questions. In theory, they should be able to retain their confidence and not be panicked.

In the end, it seems, the examiner is bound to know more about, and make a better assessment of, the student from a computerised test than from a rigid paper exam. The move could even bring about the end of the mind-numbing multiple-choice test.

Computer exams could even be fun if the student were allowed to interact with the teacher, a not-impossible notion given the advances of virtual reality. A nurse taking a test to obtain a licence to practise will be able to be in the operating room going through a simulated operation, or doing her ward rounds, not simply answering theoretical questions. A candidate for an architect's licence would be able to design a home, or an office block that meets all the zoning requirements, right there on the screen. It would also be possible to suggest to the examiner that the set question is, frankly, silly.

What the Government's move really represents is, in fact, another challenge to improve computer literacy. 'Real' literacy in the 21st century will be the three Rs, plus the ability not only to operate but also to programme computers. Get the point, pencil fans?