How a standardized test could have derailed my life

In fifth grade, I scribbled in my journal something along the lines of “I’m going to be a writer.” And it turns out that I’m one of those lucky people who gets to grow up and fulfill his childhood dream—and get paid for it.

Luckily, standardized testing didn’t derail that dream.

At the time that I scribbled my goal of becoming a writer, I was seen as one of the smart kids in class. I read books all the time and I was in my school’s Academically Gifted program. I usually did my homework and I got good grades.

Then came the North Carolina Sixth Grade Writing Test. We spent months preparing for this standardized test. We practiced time and again. We were too young to comprehend much about the future, but we could read the writing on the wall enough to know that doing well on this test was important.

When the scores came back, my teacher took us aside individually to tell us the results. My friends hypothesized that I had scored a 5—the highest possible grade. As other students returned to their desks, they whispered their scores to each other. Most had earned a 3 or 4. I waited nervously, hoping that I would meet my friend’s expectations, and my own.

I was befuddled and heart-wrenched when the teacher revealed that I was given a 2.5—the lowest possible passing score. I was one point away from failing.

The teacher explained a few possible reasons for my low score, but her words echoed meaninglessly in my mind; I was too discouraged to comprehend the possible reasons. When I returned to my seat, I refused to share my score at first. When I broke my silence, my friends were as shocked as I was depressed.

Those feelings faded, but they returned when it was time for junior high school registration. I wanted to take journalism and work on the school newspaper, but the application for that class asked requested my writing test score. I was convinced that the lowest possible passing score would disqualify me. “2.5” I wrote, feeling a bit hopeless.

I got in. Maybe Mrs. Henson, the junior high journalism instructor, considered any passing grade to be high enough, or maybe she didn’t even look at that line of the application. But getting into the journalism class helped me continue my interest in writing. It set the stage for everything writing-related that has come since: high school journalism classes, including two years as editor of the school newspaper; a part-time newspaper gig while I attended a community college; a full-time business reporting job for a few years after college; a career shift into communications/marketing writing for higher education. Now I’m the media relations director and magazine editor for a major private college in Virginia. And I’ve won a couple of awards along the way.

All with a near-failing score on some important and non-indicative score on a standardized test designed to measure writing ability.

I’m not a bestselling household name, but I support a family by coming up with ideas and translating those ideas into words. Every day when I go to work, I get to tell stories and set the tone for an organization’s communications. And I have loved every job I’ve had.

When I got my elementary writing test score back, I was convinced that my dream of writing was over. I’m glad I was wrong. I’m fortunate that I didn’t give up my interest in writing, and that Mrs. Henson didn’t set a high requirement for one standardized test score.

A recent John Oliver tirade tears into America’s addiction to standardized testing. (If your kids or your boss are listening, it has some NSFW language mostly but not entirely bleeped out.) He accuses the testing program of enriching Pearson while destroying self esteem in students and setting impossible standards for teachers. I don’t think he’s too far off.

I don’t think we can or should get rid of all standardized testing, and, even if we did, it shouldn’t be to preserve the self esteem of students like myself. We have to learn how to accept our own failures and move along. But my personal story serves as a reminder that standardized tests don’t really show us what a person knows and what they can do. And Oliver’s Last Week Tonight rant makes a pretty good case for the idea that standardized testing has gone too far and done too little good.

No Child Left Behind has left children behind, and the Race to the Top has resulted in more testing, not more and better teaching. Meanwhile, our commitment to testing and accountability has led politicians to raise the price of students’ failure to measure up. By punishing the very schools that serve students who don’t do as well, these programs punish the students who need the most help.

And, oh yeah, it turns out that some teachers and administrators will cheat, hiding the children they have left behind and securing federal dollars without really progressing toward the top.

What will it take to actually help schools help more children reach their potential? I don’t have all the answers, but I have some principles that I think could work.

We need invest in teachers, giving them resources and putting them back in charge of their classrooms.

We need to invest in families so they can help their students succeed.

We need to invest in students themselves. They are worth more than their test scores.

Considering those possible answers, I choose (D), all of the above.

What do you think?