My Optimal Test Taking Approach

All this talk about Murray and IQ has reminded me of a great time I had one day in fourth grade taking a standardized test. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are institutional uses to which those test scores are put. I think there are good critiques we could make about the uses of those scores, but the critiques are already out there in the field where people actually study this stuff. If policy makers haven’t yet listened to those critiques to come up with better policies that does suck, but we have to take responsibility for our actions in the world we live in now, not the world we might like to occupy.

That said, in fourth grade I still thought that the testing was all about the students. That is what they told us anyway: that we were being tested to determine class placements the next year. It didn’t occur to me that maybe an individual teacher’s raise might also be affected, or the school’s rating from the state, or the school’s ability to recruit future students. I naively believed them that the test was just an individual measure of our abilities to be used in-house. And yet, even at that age I thought it was a bit stupid. They had me in the same school for an entire year. I had even been there the year before. They had mountains of experience with me and my work (and other students and theirs), certainly enough to justify what they wanted to do: divide the 5th grade class into small advanced and much larger “everyone else” sections for math, English, and a couple other subjects.

Being largely reserved, even shy, I didn’t voice any actual criticisms of this strategy. But I arrived at the testing room and simply couldn’t get motivated to take it seriously. It didn’t help that the questions were arranged in progressive difficulty so that the first I read seemed entirely inane.

That decided me. On my ScanTron answer sheet I filled in exactly the correct bubbles to form a flowery meadow, the face of a barn at the right edge (actually the top, I’d turned the answer sheet sideways for my landscape), and just because the top (actually left) column didn’t have enough boxes filled in, I placed a few spaceships in the sky.

Weirdly, I finished with the second lowest score. (Perhaps I was scored by the art teacher?) I never found out who had the lowest, though I assume that that person just didn’t bother filling in anything. But I still remember that one day fondly, and in particular one flower that came out just so.


  1. says

    You are probably familiar with PISA tests and how every few years we got the same discussion.
    In the first PISA study, Germany performed poorly.
    Now, some of that was legitimately due to our education system, which is notorious for segregating kids according to social status and calling it intellectual ability.
    But there were other issues:
    1. Much like you, students didn’t see the why of it. The tests are not individually graded, so the students don’t even get feedback.
    2. Standardized tests as used in PISA weren’t really popular in Germany. Anything multiple choice was seen as inferior and even short answer questions were rare. Therefore the students were completely unfamiliar with the form. And if you are a teacher you will know how much even a change in layout will confuse your students.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    if you are a teacher you will know how much even a change in layout will confuse your students.


    …and yep. familiar with PISA, though I’ve never administered one.

  3. anat says

    Similarly, the NAEP tests are considered reliable measures of academic performance and cognitive ability at the 4th grade and 8th grade level, but it is known the 12th grade test is meaningless because the students know the results have no impact on their personal future.

    Growing up in Israel. my first encounter with a multiple choice test was in 5th grade (a teacher was experimenting with ways to assess what we took in from the material, not a standardized test). Multiple Choice tests in Israel are known as ‘American tests’.

    In 6th grade I had my first encounter with cognitive testing, when we spent a day doing piles and piles of test booklets. We were not sent results. (My parents called to follow up and were told that ‘they’ were interested in me for some ‘gifted’ program – my parents eventually turned the offer down because the program was too new, in a school far away from our home.)

    In 9th grade my school had us do another set of such tests – again, I’m still not sure what the purpose was (possibly to have an excuse to kick some low performing students out). Oddly, some of the booklets were identical to some that were in the 6th grade tests. I discovered that I was able to do them much faster this time around.

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