Saturday, December 5, 2009

The stress of the standardized test…

To fill time and make some extra “fun” money I proctor standardized tests every few weeks. This is actually kind of fun because most of the people I like in Doha do this too! We will work the test than grab lunch together and talk about the silly things students did. I know we should not take the plight of the high school student so light heartedly, but sometimes it is humorous to hear their questions and responses to things that looking back seems so straightforward.

Today I actually had to write down some of the things students did and asked me about. To set the stage I should tell you I was proctoring the SAT II subject tests. Typically I have had about 12 students in the room for these tests, but today I have 37. Since things are a little different for the SAT II, having more students does add some time to the start of the test. As I start reading the directions I get to the part that says, “please refer to your test booklet and copy the information from section 8, 9, and 10 onto your answer sheet.” I then add that they will need to do this for each test they take. They then turn the page and start filling out information for the first test they are taking – and I repeat again that they will need to write the information for 8, 9 and 10 again. Directly after saying this I get the first question. “Do we need to write the information for 8, 9, and 10 again.” “Yes, you will write the information for 8, 9, and 10 for each test you take. If you are taking 1 test you will write it on the front and on that test. If you are taking 3 tests you will write it on the front and on each of the 3 tests.” I move on to other directions and think I am about to start timing the test. The script prompts me to ask if there are any questions before we start. A hand pops up… “Do we need to write the information for 8, 9 and 10.” “Yes, you will write the information for 8, 9 and 10 for each test you take. Any more questions… no, ok – you may now begin. You have an hour to complete this test.” The test ends, we take a short break, and I begin reading the directions for the start of test two. “Please turn the page and begin filling out the information for the subject test you will be taking. Please fill in the information from your test booklet for 8, 9, and 10 onto your answer sheet…” I finish reading and three hands go up… “Do we have to fill out the information for 8, 9 and 10 again?” (in my head I really want to say no – you don’t, fill in whatever information you want, it won’t matter at all when they score your test… instead) “Yes, please fill out the information for 8, 9, and 10 for each test you take. When your answer sheet is scored each test is scored separately, this information will make sure they are scoring you for the correct version of the test.” I have no idea if this is true, but I figure it will shut them up. I was wrong, before starting test three, I get the question again. All they got from me was a laugh and a short yes.

Backtracking a little, after starting the first test I am sitting at the front of the room filling in the seating chart information. All of a sudden the “Back to School” song from Billy Madison starts running through my head. From those of you who are thing “Awesome, I would love Adam Sandler’s voice running through my head singing the same silly song over and over again” – no, it is not awesome. At first I was ok with it and thought it was a fun song to have – I even remembered some funny parts of the movie. About 40 minutes in when I announced that there was 20 minutes remaining, I wanted to bang my head against a wall. Thankfully the song was interrupted by questions from students.

During the break between the first and second test I heard the call to prayer. It sounded like it was coming from inside the room. I found this very odd because it was not time for the call to prayer, and it sounded too clear. That is when I realized it was one of the students cell phones. I asked him to turn it off, and then I had to ask him if his ring tone was the call to prayer. His response was, “yes, no one gets made when they are interrupted by the call to prayer.” Smart kid, I was not made at him for having his cell phone on. Also during this break as student asked me how I would score his test. I proceeded to explain that I did not score the test; I just gave it to them. He then asked me if I was comparing him to everyone else and if that would affect his score when I scored his test. Since he clearly did not understand that I did not score his test, I just said yes. He responded with, “good, I will get a better score.”

We then started the second test. As it started one student called me over to answer her question. At the top of her page were the words no calculator and two images of calculators with lines through it. She then asked me if she could use her calculator. I said no. She then asked again and explained she needed it to do the question. I said that it was not allowed for this test section. She then asked me if I would tell her how to do the question. I did know how to do the question, and no math was involved, but I told her I would not be able to tell her how to do the question. The rest of test number two went off easily. At the end as I was collecting tests from students who would not be staying to take a third test, one girl asked me, “So these tests are not the tests I need to take to get into school?” After asking her some questions, my response was no – she needed to take the SAT, not SAT II. She had no idea, and she really did not know what she was doing when she took the test. This was a student who I genuinely felt bad for. Another student getting ready to leave asked me if I worked “here” (meaning Education City). I responded with yes. He asked where and found out I work in Residence Life. “Oh, so you don’t work in admissions?” “No” “Will you get a job in admissions because now you know me and will let me in.” “No, I like my job, but I am sure you will be able to find the right school for you.” “Oh…”

While most of the questions I got during this test were somewhat amusing (some I can’t even remember, but they were good) one interaction was not at all amusing. As the third test started I noticed that one student looked very upset and was not writing. I went over to her and she started freaking out. I took her to the hallway where she proceeded to speed talk about this test determining her life, and how she was not ready for it and she did not want to take it. I had to calm her down and eventually told her she could just not take it. The first two would be scored and the third would not since she had not written anything down. She was concerned that she would not get into school. After talking to her more it turns out the schools she wants to go to do not even require the SAT II, and would be ok with her not having that score. She calmed down and decided to turn in her forms and go home. About 10 minutes later she knocks on the door and asks to talk to me again. She asked me if I was sure she could just walk away and then asked me if she was the only person who was stressed about college. I reassured her that everybody has some anxiety about college and taking the tests to get in. She asked a lot more questions and eventually walked away with a smile. I hope she realizes she does not have to put so much stock in one test that happens on one day – there is so much more that matters.

The reality is, working these tests (SAT, ACT, and SAT II) reminds me that it is really stressful being a high school student. When you consider where they are in their life, the experiences they have to maneuver, and the capacities they have to cope – of course it would be stressful. Now, if I took where I am in my life now, with the capabilities I have now – no it would not be stressful. Sometimes it is good to get a reminder that stress does exist for others even when you would not consider the situation stressful. It was not that long ago that I was taking these tests, but I somehow managed to forget that part of the experience. If you are reading this and have a child, sibling, or someone close who is in high school and is talking about “stress” don’t laugh or think they are exaggerating. For them life is stressful. We are asking 16 and 17 year olds to take a test that we tell them will determine their ability to get into a school that will determine their ability to accomplish “their” (or their parent’s) goals and have a “good life”. That is a lot of importance to put on one test – and yes it would be natural to feel a lot of stress.


  1. And the sad thing is, there really are some schools where test scores do make or break admissions! Sick. I'm reading a great book called Overachievers right now, a good reminder of the stress (however unnecessary) students have their last two years of high school.

  2. I am putting it on my list to read - thanks Katie!