Standardized testing makes the vast majority of us feel bad about ourselves

To the Editor:

January of my third grade year, my peers and I were inducted into a treacherous, potentially life-determining world: the world of standardized testing.  We’d spent two months preparing, coached by our curly-haired teacher on the tricks and nuances of the test, perusing hundreds of traps we must be careful not to “fall for” come testing day.

It was out with creative writing time, zealous Harry Potter book talks, and impromptu spelling bees; in with test prep.

We pranced into the New York State English Language Arts testing room pink-cheeked and curious, clutching freshly sharpened pencils, wearing good-luck barrettes.  I was even a little excited.  I loved to read and write, and I wanted to see how well I would do.

We left in a daze what felt like hours later, clutching our tiny heads in our chubby fingers, wincing.  We were 8 years old. 

“It was a nightmare, Mom,” I whispered when I got home.  “I’m seeing double.” 

She rolled her eyes and dismissed my histrionics. 

When my friends and I received our scores, my mother also received a phone call: Based on my shockingly low test score, which was far, far below the national average, I would be needing special education.  My reading and writing skills, according to an administrator at my elementary school, were dangerously lacking.

I was humiliated.  Worse, even: I was ashamed.  For the first time in my life, I felt “dumb.”  I felt “less-than.” 

I had always thought I was probably reasonably smart but, every time I was pulled out of class to attend those special lessons to learn how to take a test, while my “smarter” friends remained in the cozy classroom reading books that were too “advanced” for me, based on my score, my self-esteem was knocked down and stomped on. 

People wonder where this insane competitive atmosphere among teenagers comes from, why our generation is so manic-depressive, so riddled with inferiority/superiority complexes, so rampant with neuroticism.  I’m no psychologist, and while I’m sure there are myriad reasons for these issues, the standardized test was my first taste of all that.  My very first “I must be stupid.”  My very first “I’m not going to achieve anything.”  My very first, and surprisingly devastating,  “I am not good enough.” 

I have taken at least one standardized test every year since I was 8 years old.  For over half of my life, I have been annually plagued with worry and panic: What if it happens again?  What if my scores are terrible?  What if my scores indicate that I am below average?  What if my scores are right? 

It’s pretty demoralizing to watch my friends sobbing before taking standardized tests and after seeing their scores.  It’s painful to watch them sweating over thick, meaty SAT prep books at 10:30 at night, frantically memorizing tips and tricks and algebra shortcuts, learning the “essay formula,” even skipping homework in order to manically prep during the week leading up to the test.

And I’ve seen people who I know are completely brilliant receive inexplicably low test scores that would play a huge role in determining where they spent the next four years of their lives.

“Why do they do this to us?” one of my friends asked me absentmindedly, after we took the PSAT.  “Why do they make us do this stuff?  Why do they make us wait to see where we measure up, what percentile we’re in?  I just don’t get it.”

Because of the role we all know standardized testing plays in where we go to college, the role it plays in where our very lives end up, standardized testing takes up a harrowing amount of space in our brains and our lives.

I am a middle-class, able-bodied white girl getting a great education at a private school.  So what am I whining about?  Why do I think I have any right to complain about a system that clearly caters to those who, like me, possess an embarrassing amount of privilege?

Here’s the thing: You can take out the socio-economic and racial bias.  You can take out the anxiety-disordered-yet-highly-intellectual kids who choke, test after test, unable to make their scores reflect what they know they are capable of.  You can take out the kids who are incredibly gifted in non-intellectual areas being asked to perform on a test they know they will fail, over and over, year after year.  You can take out the fact that the SAT is no indicator of drive, determination, creativity, ambition, cooperation, leadership, compassion, or even (in my opinion) intelligence. 

Even without all of these obvious flaws, the fact remains: Standardized testing makes the vast majority of us feel bad about ourselves.  It makes us feel like we need, need, need to do better. 

Sometimes it makes us feel above other people for two seconds before we collapse into worry again, wondering how stiff the competition in other schools is this year.  Very often, it makes us feel like we are “not enough.”

With these numbers we are fed all our lives (47th percentile!  430! 1560!  Below average!  Below average!  Below average!  Or even, Average!  Average!  Average!) we learn to measure ourselves and our worth, our skills and our intelligence.  We learn to use our test scores to compare ourselves to other people.  We learn helplessness, or we learn to study like we’ll never sleep again. 

I know this.  I know my standardized test scores aren’t measuring whether I am a good friend, how well I can persevere, or my ability to achieve.  I know all of these things. 

But I’m entering my senior year in high school this fall.  I’m going to be applying to colleges very, very soon.  So, while I write this article full of fire and righteous anger, railing against this deeply flawed system, I am also thinking about how, later tonight, I will open up one of my four SAT prep books and turn on my stopwatch to see how fast I can get through an 18-question math section.

The mysterious “they” that is potential universities hold up the banana of admission and say, “Dance, monkey!  Dance!”  Slowly, miserably, I open up my test prep. I get out my flash cards. I pull on my tap shoes.  And I dance.

Isabelle Doyle

Editor’s note: Currently a junior at Emma Willard School in Troy, Isabelle Doyle attended and graduated from both Guilderland Elementary school, and then Farnsworth Middle School.  In the third grade, she began taking the New York State assessments, continuing every year through her eighth-grade year at Farnsworth.

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