My Sad History with Standardized Testing
Photo by Anthony Quinn
Published in ChicagoNow, December 8, 2014
I have a personal aversion to standardized fill-in-the-bubble tests. They have never been my friend, and we go back a long way. So, I am truly dismayed to see this style of testing gripping my grandkids’ schools with a vengeance.
You may have noticed that I am still advocating for fewer high stakes standardized tests in children’s lives. And I have been particularly critical of the PARCC exam to be given to kids in Illinois for the first time this spring. More about that later this week.
For now, there may be a few lessons to be learned from my personal testing journey. Let’s call this confession of my sorry past history with testing an explanation of how deeply rooted my distaste for these tests is.
First, a brief explanation of my educational background: I have few memories of my beginning years in Detroit public schools. In fact, all I can recall is kids being sent to the cloakroom for punishment and the candy store next to the school. After we moved to Oak Park, Michigan, I mainly remember being sent to a few schools and attending half-day split shifts due to overcrowding caused by everyone deciding to move to suburbia at the same time.
Oak Park High School was huge and exciting for me. I got to attend all day, learned all kinds of new things, and had some inspiring teachers. What I did not have were honors or AP classes, class rankings, or standardized tests. I took the SAT once and thought I had done well enough. I was good at taking the tests my teachers created and “doing school.” Turned out that a girl who got all A’s except for gym could end up #3 in her class. But I didn’t find out about that until after I graduated, and being the smartest girl was a dubious distinction in my day.
My grades and SAT scores were good enough to get me into the University of Michigan. It was only after I enrolled there that I discovered that high stakes standardized testing scores might open some doors but could also close others.
I wanted desperately to enroll in Great Books my freshman year but was told my SAT total score was 50 points too low. When I protested I was told I should have prepared for the test and taken it more than once. What? Here I was continuing to earn high grades and studying hard, and I couldn’t take this class because of my score on one test.
Sophomore year, I was admitted to the honors college based on my grades, but now I was too old to take the class. So, I took the class offered for sophomores, Philosophy of Something-or-Other, which I hated.
At the end of college, high stakes standardized testing impacted my life once again. Although I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, I decided not to apply to graduate school because the best ones required taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). I was so traumatized by my experience with the SAT that I decided to do what the other “smart girls” did back in 1967 – I became an English teacher. When I returned to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy, I don’t remember a high stakes test being part of the admissions process. Perhaps these tests were out of vogue back then. Lucky for me.
You might be wondering at this point what lessons can be learned from my sad little history with high stakes testing. Here are three of them:
Taking tests is not the same as testing. I excelled at every assessment given to me to see if I had learned and could apply the material taught in class. I just never had a talent for taking standardized, multiple-choice tests.
Without prepping for these standardized tests, folks like me who tend to over think are easily tricked. Ask me to write an essay answer any day. Just don’t ask me if “B” or “F” is a better bubble to fill in. I will ponder it too long and not get to all of the other questions.
The SAT did not measure the things that led to my readiness for college and career: love of learning, ability to communicate orally and in writing, curiosity, perseverance, motivation, collaboration and time management skills, and creative thinking.
I’m not a fan of the current educational reform climate. It relies too heavily on rewards and punishments rather than intrinsic motivation to learn. It ignores the unique learning styles of children. It stifles teachers by forcing them to teach primarily those things that will be tested. Most of all, it tests my grandkids to death.