Baked Chicken and Scrambled Eggs: Assessment Testing Run Amuck

This is your brain on testing.

This is your brain on testing.

I’ve written before about how assessment testing in the workplace has altered my point of view on standardized testing in schools. To summarize, although I still think basing a student’s (or more to the point, that student’s teacher’s) entire future on one test taken on one day is, to put it mildly, insane, I am no longer able to base this belief on the idea that testing creates a completely artificial situation in school that is unrepresentative of what a high-school graduate will face in the workplace.

I am currently looking for work (as I was when I first posted on this topic), and the level at which applicants are scrutinized continues to shock me. For example, I spent over two and a half hours completing an application online for a job at a call center. I have no idea what kind of pay I would expect, since the application did not specify, but I would hope it would be greater than minimum wage, given all the hoops I had to jump through. They expect a résumé and a cover letter, although all of the information from each of these documents also has to be added into the interactive online form (Side Note: What’s the point of the résumé, then? Just to show I know how to write one?). The form itself has all manner of biases and hangups, too; for example, I had to delete all of the coursework for my Master’s program, because the online form wouldn’t let me report a graduation date in the future. The most labor-intensive part, however, was the testing. To start with, there were multiple sections of “personality testing,” requiring me to choose the adjective that “best describes me” from an absurd list. I don’t remember exactly, but the choices were something like, “friendly,” “organized,” “punctual,” and “logical.” How do I choose? I strive to be all four of those things. After the personality questions, I had to load a “software simulator” that would demonstrate the software I would be using if I got the job and work through four pretend telephone calls. Wait a minute – I have to show I can do the job before I’ve been trained to do the job? Then what’s the point of training? Furthermore, how am I supposed to know in advance what would be the best response? Basically, I’m being tested blind. There’s no way to study, because I never saw a score or got any advice for improvement, and considering that I filled out this “application” over a week and a half ago, I’m pretty sure I’m not even going to be interviewed.

So I failed this little Lack-of-Instruction Exam, and how could I not? Although I can use a computer and have at least above-average intelligence, that’s not enough anymore. You have to be able to guess, and guess “correctly” without having any idea what kind of answers are “best.” It’s no wonder high-school students are tested to death; that actually is what the vast majority of them are looking forward to in their careers.

Furthermore, education is not exempt. I also applied for a teaching job or two, and I found personality testing required for those applications as well (one of them also required a drug test and a physical exam should I be selected; I’m actually relieved that I didn’t get that one).

Even the government is not exempt. I also applied for a job as an administrative assistant at a government office and found more testing. This one wanted to know how much experience I had doing various tasks. Too bad there was no radio button for, “I’ve never done it, but I’m smart and educated, and I have no doubt I could pick it up easily.” If you haven’t already had a job doing exactly these tasks, you will never get a job doing them (at least, not for Uncle Sam).

What bothers me most of all about this testing is the psychological toll it takes. It is incredibly demoralizing to spend huge chunks of time taking objective tests for which you will never receive a grade, a score, or any kind of feedback. I will never find out how I did on that software simulation, just as I never found out how I did on the tests I took for my current (minimum-wage) job. Clearly, I did “all right” on the tests for my current job (because I got the job), and just as clearly I did “not as good” on the tests I took more recently, but I have no idea why that is or, more importantly, how I could improve. I don’t even know if there is an opportunity to retest.

Physical tests are likewise demeaning. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I have what might be politely termed a “nervous bladder.” Pre-employment urine testing almost always brings me to tears, no matter how much water or sports drinks I have beforehand (and believe me, I load up by the gallon), because I just can’t seem to pee on command. I’ve thought about requesting alternate testing, like blood, hair, or saliva, but I always worry that someone will think I have something like a meth habit to hide, when the truth is that I don’t want to spend all day at the collection site crying in front of strangers because I’ve been there for so many hours.

Although I’ve never had to submit to a physical exam as a requirement for a job, that, too, creates unneeded stress. I laid awake after finishing the application wondering, Why would they want a physical exam? What would they be looking for? I’ve got some issues; would they really reject me because my blood pressure was a little high? Will it help or hurt that I’m hypothyroid? Will they want blood work? And most of all, Who pays for all of this? Is this a good way for schools to spend my tax dollars?

As for the psychological testing, in my opinion, that is even worse. Barbara Ehrenreich talks about this in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (available here) by saying: “Maybe the hypothetical types of questions can be justified–whether you would steal if an opportunity arose or turn in a thieving coworker and so on–but not questions about your “moods or self-pity,” whether you are a loner or believe you are usually misunderstood. It is unsettling, at the very least, to give a stranger access to things, like your self-doubts…, that are otherwise shared only in medical or therapeutic situations” (page 209). If I come to work on time and do my job competently, why does it matter if I am “a loner” or “quiet”? Why does it matter if I come home and tell my husband about something ridiculous that someone said? Or is that better than “leaving it all at the office” because I care?

Even more frightening is the idea that these “personality tests” are giving potential employers more ammunition to discriminate against certain types of job-seekers. It’s against the law to discriminate against people based on race or religion, but I’ve never heard of any law prohibiting discrimination based on personality type. Is my introversion keeping me from getting hired? If so, that’s not fair, but how could I even begin to prove it? And again, why should that matter if I’m a good employee? I know that employers are biased against introverts (I could prove this point, but Susan Cain does a fantastic job in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking), but I’ve never understood why. After all, when management loops through the office, the introverts will probably be at their desks, while the extraverts will be gathered at the coffee machine chatting (yet another mark in my favor is that I don’t drink coffee, but I suspect that this would be seen as a mark against me as well). Yes, that last is a stereotype, but I still think it’s an important point. Because I am less interested in what others think of me, I am able to propose logical solutions to problems that might not be as popular as other, less-workable solutions. This makes me an asset, not the liability I am often considered.

I really hope that our culture in general can move past this impulse to quantify everything. People are more than the sum of their parts, and they are definitely more than the sum of their test scores.

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