Every time I hear any news about teachers and schools these days, everybody seems to be worried about standardized testing. Teachers and parents are upset because they feel that the strong emphasis on testing does not help students prepare for the Real World. As a teacher, and as a human being who is concerned for the future of this country, I strongly share their concern that testing is crowding learning out of education. I loathed taking time away from reading and writing to talk about how to take a multiple-guess test. However, recent events have caused me to begin a deeper consideration of the idea that life is not about filling in bubbles on a multiple-guess test. I am not for one instant arguing that filling in bubbles should be an important skill in life, but I am starting to think that it is, in fact, a valuable skill for a person to have.
I’ve been a proud member of the teaching profession for a significant amount of time. I began substitute teaching in the fall of 2004, and I fell in love with working with high-school students. I got my first full-time teaching gig in the fall of 2008, and I resolved that I would never “teach to a test.” I would support the spirit of the standards, and the test would take care of itself. I’m proud to report that it did, in fact, take care of itself; for every year that I’ve seen results, over 90% of my students passed the state-mandated End of Instruction test for English III. I spent a very minimal amount of time in class on overt test preparation, but I did often insert a comment here and there about how the skills they were practicing would be useful on the test. I was really proud of myself that I was teaching so-called “Real-World” skills, and I was confident that what we were doing in class was actually more difficult than the test. I still think that this is the best way for me to run a classroom, and if I stepped back into a classroom tomorrow, I would still build my courses around working beyond the test. I am not as sure anymore, however, that a greater emphasis on test-taking isn’t warranted (although I think I would probably rationalize to myself that since everyone else is doing it in their classrooms, I could get away with not worrying about it…but that’s not really the point of what I’m trying to say right now).
I’ve been very fortunate in that although teachers don’t make much money, I’ve always been able to scrape by without having to get a part-time or summer job. Unfortunately, being a full-time graduate student is a less-lucrative career than teaching, and I did have to get a summer job this year. I was offered two clerical positions by a local temporary agency, but with my husband working evenings, I didn’t figure that an eight-to-five gig would be the best choice for me in a practical sense (not to mention the fact that both positions were temp-to-hire, and I really didn’t feel right asking a company to train me as a permanent employee when I knew I wouldn’t be staying long). I ended up accepting a position at a local drugstore, working evenings and weekends in their photo laboratory. It ended up being a really good choice for a number of reasons, but I’m looking forward to dropping down to part-time next week, in preparation for the beginning of the fall semester a couple of weeks afterward.
I think I’ve digressed a little; I was supposed to be talking about testing, not summer jobs. Rest assured that there is, in fact, a connection to be made, and that the previous paragraph was not simply gratuitous musing on my personal financial situation. Although I only ended up applying with two companies (the drugstore and the temporary agency), I was surprised to discover that both of them required me to pass a pre-employment “assessment test.” I was expecting it from the temporary agency; I’ve worked with other temp agencies in the past, and they always required a full battery of tests to determine my proficiency with a variety of computer software and other office skills like basic literacy and arithmetic skills. Therefore, I was not surprised to be presented with a screening test, and in fact, I was relieved that they gave me the benefit of the doubt and simply asked me how fast I could type, rather than requiring me to take a typing test (I am a really good typist, but I tend to “choke up” on any test of speed).
What did surprise me was that the drugstore also required a screening test, and I was even more surprised to discover how detailed it was. There were multiple sections, some of which I was allowed to complete on my home computer, and others that I was required to complete in the store. I was asked a wide variety of questions, beginning with what seemed to be a personality test, and ending with a “skills assessment,” which is a multiple-guess test that any K-12 testing company would have been proud of. I don’t remember any of the questions exactly (and I’d probably be in trouble for posting them if I did), but there were several that went something like this: “A customer purchases X number of items. The total amount due is _____. The customer gives you N dollars. What change should you give them?” The multiple-guess answers did not offer a total amount; they would read something like this: “A $5; B $1; C quarters; D dimes; E nickels; F pennies.” I remember thinking how silly it all was, but I figured out some strategies to move through the questions a bit faster (it wasn’t a timed test, but I was standing at a computer terminal that was just a bit too high for sitting, but a bit too low for standing, there was no chair, and I was wearing heels – I wanted to be finished as quickly as possible for my own reasons), and of course, I passed it (although I don’t know by how much or what my score was – I presume it’s in my file somewhere, but I’m not sure it matters).
I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t see the similarities between this kind of workplace screening test and the standardized tests in schools until just recently. The computer that is used to administer the “skills assessments” is at the far end of my photo counter, and the other day when I was really busy with pictures, there was a woman about my age or maybe a little younger taking the test. She seemed really concerned, and she asked me several questions about the test that I couldn’t answer, things like, “What’s the minimum score I need to pass?” and “Do you think I can still get hired if I fail?” I tried the best I could to reassure her, but the truth is that I didn’t (and still don’t) have any answers for her. I don’t know what the minimum passing score is; I never asked. I passed, and that’s all that mattered to me.
After she finished the test, the woman asked me to page a manager so she could ask if there was anything else she needed to do. I never intend to eavesdrop, but it’s almost impossible not to listen to people who are standing less than six feet away (and I couldn’t leave; I was working on orders that were due). I don’t have the right to share any of the details I learned about the woman during her brief exchange with my boss, but I will say that she needed the job fairly desperately, for a number of reasons.
I also learned that she didn’t pass the test.
This really got me thinking. As a teacher, I’ve always heard that it’s too harsh to deny a student a diploma based on test scores – if they pass their classes, they should receive the diploma. It’s one test, on one day; a student’s entire future shouldn’t rest on one test. Yet, in a “real-world” situation, this is exactly what I saw happen; this woman was denied a job that she really needed based on one test, and this despite the fact that the store is severely short-handed (my boss told me earlier in the week that there are anywhere from eighty to one hundred hours every week that we have available, but we don’t have the people to work them – that’s two to two and a half full-time employees – so it’s not that we don’t have any openings available). I’ll admit that I didn’t speak with her for very long, but she seemed intelligent enough to run a cash register and stock shelves. I’m old-school enough to think that cashiers should be able to count back change, but I’m realistic enough to know that most of them never have to; the computer does it all. Indeed, when the electricity at the store went out one day last week, we hurried to check everyone out before the limited battery backup failed, because we are not allowed to sell anything without the computerized cash registers.
I thought about the situation a little bit more. Beyond the “skills assessment,” once I was hired, I had to complete a series of computer-based training courses. These also reminded me of standardized tests, in that they would first present some information, and then I would be asked to regurgitate or apply this information at the end of the lesson. My scores were recorded, and there were a couple of times where I had to exit and re-enter a lesson and try the review questions a second time, because I hadn’t scored high enough (in my defense, the lessons had an audio component, and the headphones for the computer stopped working about halfway through). The questions were often arbitrary, and the correct answers were sometimes impossible to determine based on the information from the lesson. I’m fortunate in that I’m usually a really good test-taker, and I sailed through with a minimum of effort, but still, if I didn’t pass, I couldn’t move on, and there was a limit to the amount of time I could spend at the computer.
My next thought was that this whole “testing” thing was new; something that had appeared recently on the corporate scene, perhaps even in response to the larger emphasis on testing in the schools. Unfortunately, I was wrong again; I had a similar kind of corporate job as a cashier for a very large chain of Big-Box store while I was working on my bachelor’s degree, and they had a very similar type of computer-based training even at that time. Not only that, but the Big-Box employer and my current employer also require another skills assessment for advancement (I took the test at my old job, and one of the assistant managers at my new job mentioned to me in passing that they have one as well). One test. One day. One shot. In every case, there are re-takes available, but I do not doubt for an instant that all the scores are saved in a file somewhere – this also suggests that candidates might be selected based on scores, or that a candidate who needed multiple re-takes might be rejected based on that fact, rather than his or her highest score.
The more I think about all of this, the more I think that it’s really incorrect to oppose standardized testing based on the argument that students will never use test-taking skills outside of school. However, I see the fact that standardized testing is used in the corporate world not as evidence that testing is useful, but that corporate America has followed (or more likely pushed) schools down some twisted rabbit hole with them. Fortunately, I can think of a lot more arguments against standardized testing; just because this particular argument has proven itself to be invalid doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a lot more valid arguments to be made in opposition of the focus on test scores in common education.