My mind is so fried at this point in the school year that I cannot think of a thing to write about, so I will rely on my hatred of Standardized Testing to pull me through today’s blog post. Nothing can get me ranting faster these days. I can spew about it non-stop, not allowing for interruptions, stifling anyone who attempts to interject their opinion. I WILL RUIN YOUR DINNER PARTY if this topic is brought up.
I remember the moment when I finally parted philosophical ways with standardized testing. It had been coming for a long time. Throughout my school years, from elementary in the 70’s to middle and high school in the 80’s, I, along with my classmates, was occasionally subjected to standardized testing. I don’t remember what my first standardized test was on, I just remember being fascinated by the little ScanTron (or whatever they were called) cards, and riveted by the lecture on Number 2 pencils. I have always loved the smell of graphite, and until that moment, I had no idea there were different NUMBERS of pencils. (I currently prefer the 1.5.) I also remember the way my teachers rolled their eyes and told us not to worry about how we did on this test. This was just something some “genius in an office somewhere downtown” wanted us to take. My teachers made it clear they considered this utter foolishness and a complete waste of time.
In high school, the teachers and administrators used to gather a bunch of us in the “Commons Area” (a euphemism for “cafeteria and also where your prom will be”), for standardized testing. I remember taking a test that was designed to determine what future occupations I would be well-suited for. In the shaded “Areas of Interest” section, I colored in the circle next to “Performing Arts and other”. (Presumably, the “other” was waiting tables?) When the test results were returned, my two recommended occupations were, (I am not joking), “Nuclear Physicist” and “Farmer”. About my desire to have a career in the “Performing Arts and other”, the computer had belched out the following: “You have indicated you are interested in a career in The Performing Arts and other. This test is not designed to evaluate your ability in this career field. Please consult your Guidance Officer.” Oh. My Guidance Officer. Not my band director, choral teacher, or flute teacher. My Guidance Officer. I had never visited the Guidance Office once in my high school career, and I meant to keep it that way.
This was the beginning of the end of my faith (and slight love affair) with standardized testing. I dutifully took my PSATs and SATs. (I got the same very respectable score both times on the SAT. On the first time, I scored high on math and not-so-high on the written. On the second attempt, I scored the EXACT SAME NUMBERS, except I scored high on the written and lower on math.) But the final straw came during my senior year.
It was during English class. I was in an Advanced Placement English class, and the teacher, whom we all adored, dutifully passed out a standardized test and informed us that it would not affect our grades, but that our entire graduating class was required to take it. It was a very long test, and we had about a 50 minute class period. The test asked questions like, “If your doctor prescribes you medicine, and the instructions on the bottle say to take one pill every six hours, four times per day, you should:
a) Take the pill every six hours, for a total of four times per day.
b) Take the pill every four hours, for a total of six times a day.
c) Guzzle the entire bottle.
d) Give the medicine to your cat.”
The test was clearly designed to determine if my graduating class had been taught basic life skills. There were questions about check-book balancing, the importance of refrigerating dairy products, etc. As the end of class time approached, most of us were still working on this VERY IMPORTANT ASSESSMENT, and our teacher announced that we had permission to stay and complete the test, that we were supposed to be given all the time needed to complete this test. My next class was band. Missing band to complete this test was unacceptable to me. (See above re: occupational desires and “Performing Arts and other”.) Band was my favorite class. Band was important. We had a concert coming up. I had solos. The climate control in the building wasn’t working properly, and it was hot in the English classroom. This test was stupid. I couldn’t bear to answer another question about whether Jimmy should wait for the walking stick figure to appear or just barrel across the road. I didn’t care what happened to Jimmy. I raised my hand.
My beloved English teacher appeared by my desk. “Do you have a question about the test?” “Yes. Am I required to finish it?”
“You are requested to complete all questions to which you have an answer.”
“Will my score be recorded as part of a group or will it be recorded as something I, as an individual, will have done?”
“This test is to determine if your graduating class has been taught basic life skills.”
(I just stared at her.)
“No, your individual score will not be recorded, but consider that you will be contributing to faulty data if you do not complete this test.”
As soon as she left my desk, I hurriedly shaded in “C” for all my remaining answers, because as everyone knows, “C” is the most likely answer on a standardized test, and I wanted to assuage my guilt about making everyone in my class look slightly dumber than we actually were, and possibly causing the entire senior class to have to sit through some sort of pedestrian safety film. (If you did not know that “C” is the most likely answer on a standardized test, you are older than me and were fortunately not subjected to standardized testing, probably.) I turned my paper over, grabbed my bags, and smiled at my English teacher. She smiled back in what I like to imagine was a conspiratorial smile. I happily headed off to band class.
These days, the testing is more common, but that’s not the issue. (I am now at risk of going off on a rant, but I am writing at my favorite coffee shop and I want to go shopping before a meeting – so don’t worry, I’ll have to cut this one short.) There is nothing wrong with evaluating our schools through occasional testing, to be sure that every child in our country has the same educational opportunity. The problem is that, the minute the government attached funding to the test results and told the teachers it would be their fault if a child was “left behind”, the testing began to drive the system. In Virginia, we call it SOL Testing (for “Standards of Learning”). I remember SOL standing for something else entirely when I was growing up. Good teachers are teaching with their hands tied behind their backs, bad (or desperate) teachers are teaching to the tests and giving out answers, students are stressed out, and there is much less time creative activities and for so-called “non-core” subjects like band, PE, and art. And we’re bringing up a nation of children who can’t reason for themselves. (Simply witness the addition of “Critical Thinking 101” courses in undergraduate programs all over the country.)
Maybe we all need to shade in the C’s, stand up, and head to band class (or Art or PE or dear God, does anyone remember when we had Strings class?), before we are truly S.O.L.
End rant. Going shopping.