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?