Here Comes the Monkey!

John Oliver has an episode dedicated to the horrors of standardized testing.  He reveals how children are so stressed about test-taking, that now some tests have guidelines that tell teachers what to do if a student throws up on the test booklet.  Oliver continues by telling stories of students opting out of tests in protest, a school board member failing a reading test designed for children, testing companies hiring graders from Craigslist, and a teacher receiving a poor evaluation because his student could not achieve a literally impossible test score. The explosion of testing–following Bush’s No Child Left Behind–was meant to hold schools “accountable,” yet scores haven’t even really improved.  Oliver jokes that the only upside to tests seems to be the funky monkey testing mascot.  With students crying and teachers tailoring their curricula to the test, nobody wins.

Except testing companies.  Oliver compares Pearson to Time Warner Cable, saying that you either haven’t heard of them or they’ve ruined your life. I remember most of my textbooks having that familiar Pearson logo, but I didn’t really question it.  Pearson was ubiquitous; the logo symbolized school. In the video, Oliver explains that after learning from Pearson textbooks, a child can take Pearson tests by preparing with Pearson study material from a Pearson-certified teacher.  If the student doesn’t do well on the test and needs to take a learning difficulty/disability exam, that’s going to be from Pearson.  If the student gets fed up with school and drops out then wants to take the GED, that’s going to be from Pearson too.  The brand is inescapable.

Another testing giant is College Board.  I bought College Board’s study guides for the SAT and AP exams, paid to take the AP’s, paid even more to take the SAT, and then felt disappointed in the scores.  In Oliver’s video, an AP grader admits that his supervisors told him to “see more tests as 3’s” so that scoring would correspond to results from previous years.  We pour money into study guides, fees, and sometimes tutoring–just for a grader to take 5 minutes and assign an arbitrary grade.  Our teachers narrow our learning so we can be “prepared for the test,” and then their pay can suffer when a grader says decides we weren’t prepared enough.

I remember a rumor about grading that was floating around when I took the SAT. Students wondered about the graders and what they looked for in the essay portion.  Some students claimed that there weren’t actually human graders because they thought the SAT used scanners.  One person went so far as to claim that the SAT programmed the scanners to look for quotes–specifically from African Americans.  He said he’d heard of someone who’d raised his test score by writing, “Rosa Parks said, ‘No.'” Honestly, this rumor sounded plausible given standardized testing’s reputation of cheapening education.

In 10th grade, College Board took this shallowness to a whole new level.  There was a ridiculous question on the PSAT about people who’d never seen a cow before.  High-schoolers mocked it on social media, prompting College Board to spend money on cow stickers and distribute them to 23,000 schools.  College Board included a letter about how they wanted to “have some fun,” but some teachers and students (rightly) felt this gesture was out of line.  One counselor wrote:

“The fact that College Board thought this was a good marketing campaign leaves me baffled. These stickers are for first graders! What do they even mean? And what’s with the “cover letter?” No date, no real letterhead… I swear I thought it was a joke. “We are so glad you had a blast taking the PSAT?” – Ummm, our students didn’t have “a blast…” they paid for it, they dreaded it…  “We hope the PSAT/NMSQT is always this fun?” Ummm…. no, it wasn’t fun. I had students crying about their scores. College Board is making this a mockery! “Please distribute these stickers to your students?” Not at my high school….”


Here comes the monkey, though, right?

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One Response to Here Comes the Monkey!

  1. Autumn Grace says:


    I really enjoyed reading your post, and I think it is something that everyone can relate to. When I was in school, just like you, I remember seeing the Pearson company all over my testing material, but just like you, I never really questioned it. To me, this was just a part of school that I had to deal with. Luckily for me, testing was never really anxiety provoking, but I did stress about studying to get a good score. I also watched my older brother become depressed during his high school years because these tests were telling him that he “wasn’t smart enough” or wasn’t “college ready.” Because of this, he hated school and never tried to go to college because he felt that he wasn’t smart enough to.

    Although John Oliver was presenting it in a more humorous way, a lot of what he was saying was spot on. Just like you mentioned, the only ones benefiting from this situation are the companies who are making profit off of testing materials. My problem is, if we know how corrupt the system is and how it isn’t beneficial in the way that it was designed to be, why haven’t we put a stop to it? Why is standardized testing still increasing?

    I am interested to see your ideas on how we can reduce standardized testing, as well as some of your own personal experiences with the testing system.

    Overall, I really enjoyed your post, and I think it is a very important topic to discuss because it is still impacting many children and teachers today in negative ways.


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