If you want a funny and yet completely on-the-mark and disturbing look at standardized testing in our country, you should skip my post and watch this John Oliver clip instead. It’s long, but worth watching all the same. (Hey, my post is long too.)


I’m going to tell you my personal experience with standardized testing, specifically the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment).

The test is constantly changing, so for teachers and students, it’s a moving target. We get a list of “eligible content” and a few “sample questions,” but we never know what our students will be asked to do from year to year. The teachers never see the test unless we sneak peeks over our students’ shoulders while they take it.

From the moment the test booklets enter our building, we go into high-security lockdown. In my building, teachers are recruited to put barcode labels on the test booklets, but there are always administrators in the room watching to make sure no teacher opens a booklet to see the questions inside.

Proctors for the test are required to watch a training video, pass a test, and sign a security document. One of my favorite parts of the video were the DO and DON’T scenarios.

DON’T: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands beside him.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember the strategies we used in class?” He nods. “Try one of those.” She pats him on the back and returns to the podium.

DO: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands a distance away, so she doesn’t have a view of the test.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher says, “I can’t help you,” and returns to the podium.

I always wondered why she didn’t just stay at her podium and give him the finger when he raised his hand. The attitude was pretty much the same, and it would’ve saved her some steps.

The state testing agency sent agents out for surprise security inspections. They might peer at you through the window or walk in, sit down, and watch you for the entire test period. One of the things they would be looking for is any deviation from the test instructions.

We had to read from a script. For many years, the first section of the PSSA consisted of a Math test with a multiple-answer section and TWO open-ended questions. The directions called for the teacher to have the students open their test booklets to see the multiple-answer section and the FIRST open-ended problem. In the directions, we read that there were TWO open-ended problems, but since each one was two pages long with multiple parts, many students incorrectly assumed that both problems were contained on the facing pages they were looking at. The directions did not allow us to tell them to turn the page and see that there were more questions.

As you can imagine, many, many students accidentally skipped the second open-ended problem. After years of teachers complaining to the state, the PSSA directions finally changed. In my last year of teaching, we weren’t allowed to show the students any of the pages. We just wrote the page numbers on the board (pages 6-9) and left the kids to find the problems on their own.

If we saw a student accidentally skip part of the test, we were not allowed to tell them. Whenever they indicated they were finished, we had to take the test. Even if they’d only spent 15 minutes on a test that was meant to take an hour. (And there’s always one of those kids in every class.)

Students are instructed NOT to talk about the test questions to each other, to their teachers, or to their parents. As John Oliver says in the video, the test has all the transparency of Fight Club. As teachers, we tried to prepare the students as best we could, based on the stated eligible content. We taught fifth graders both climax and turning point, because we never knew which term would be on the test. We made them distinguish between third person limited and third person omniscient, even though some adult writers can’t tell the difference. (Seriously, I’ve seen Big 5 published books making mistakes in that area.) The PA Common Core mistakenly uses the term Point of View both in its correct sense (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person) and also as a synonym for Author’s Perspective, so that’s what we teach them, even though it is wrong and confusing to the students. And when a math open-ended question says they can either show or explain their work – we’ve never got a straight answer out of the state whether points are taken off if they don’t do both.

So that’s the test. School funding rides on it. Teacher evaluations and salaries are hinged on it. And now kids in my school district will be getting less physical education, music, art, computers, science, history, and geography so they can work harder to prepare for it because their scores have been trending down.

I’ll ask my daughter’s question again: “Do you think it might be the test that’s to blame?”