Making the Grades

Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry

I am a good standardized test taker. This is a good thing since beyond the basic tests everyone took in school I’ve had to take the MCAT, Medical boards (Steps 1, 2 and 3) and Pediatric boards. I’ll have to take the Pediatrics boards every 7 years for as long as I practice.  I do believe that test-taking is a skill in of itself and not just a measure of intelligence or learning. I read fast. I have a good visual memory ( I can close my eyes when taking a test and visualize where on the page an answer is and then “read” it).  And I have the ability to know what the great almighty “they” want from a test-taker. I’m not particularly proud of this ability, although I’m thankful for it and realize it’s made my life a lot easier.

That said, I’ve always been turned off by how important standardized tests have become in schools today. It’s one of the reasons we chose to homeschool. From that perspective, this expose of the standardized testing industry by Todd Farley confirms my feelings. It’s also quite shocking in what he reveals about the scoring of these all important tests.

Farley reveals a world where the testing companies hire scorers who often don’t care about the job, are overworked, and are often ignorant about the very subjects they are scoring. He exposes widespread cheating to have the tests meet reliability standards or to cover up scoring problems. Many of the stories in the book are so absurd that it reads as funny until you realize that this was real and some student or teacher or school had their life affected by these tests. For example, he tells of one “very nice” but incredibly dumb scorer who worked at scoring reading tests for three weeks. At the end of the time the scorer asks Farley what he’s being tested for, apparently thinking he’s been taking some kind of psychological test and not realizing he’s actually the one grading the tests. Farley explains to him that he’s not being tested but grading reading tests. The man says “I’m deciding if these kids are smart?” and looks at Farley with great shock.

In another example, the department of education representative from a state changes the way the tests are scored midway through because they are giving too many low scores. This means that the kids who were scored first are judged by higher standards than later kids. This particular story is even more disturbing because the test in question is one that is being used to decide if schools are “failing” or not and therefore will decide funding and impact teacher jobs.

The one off-putting thing about the book for me was that Farley worked in the standardized testing industry for 15 years before writing this book. On one-hand, it makes his stories credible. He knows testing. On the other hand, he is quite judgmental towards many of the people involved in testing but somehow never seems to have a mea culpa moment about his own involvement. He explains away every instance where he is the one cheating or lying or changing scores or keeping on scorers who are incompetent. I’m not sure it changes what he has to say, but it might have made me like him more if he’d taken some responsibility for his part in the industry.

Overall, though it’s a really interesting book and one I’d recommend, especially if you or your kids will be taking standardized tests anytime soon.

3 thoughts on “Making the Grades

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m Todd’s editor, though I’m responding here as a fellow reader. You identified the one passage that blew my mind: the cage fighter (if I recall correctly) that thought he was taking a battery of psychological tests, not scoring student exams.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System « Supratentorial

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