Test Hatred I

Bruce Matsunaga / Flickr)

Tests have found all of us multiple times throughout our lives especially in our school years, but does the first one we took there come to mind? Do we know anything about its quality? Was it a good test?  Was it atrocious?  Did we care? Did we abhor testing from the get-go? Did our parents? It is unlikely that they would have told us that they liked a test, but they might have conveyed how they too despised testing. 

The asymmetry of expression by people who hate tests (or more generally detest the so-called testing industry) is notable. Testing proponents, who are called in their own circles educational measurement professionals, do not use language in support of their products that can match what their critics employ: “a waste of time and money”, “racist“, “corrupt, stupid, punitive, and just regurgitation.” Regurgitation, you say?  

Many people who hate tests like the word ‘regurgitate’ to describe their antipathy. Those of you who were not in class that day, regurgitate means “To eject or expel again … to bring (food, liquid, or gas) up from the stomach to the mouth (involuntarily or voluntarily, and typically in small quantities” or “to repeat (facts, ideas, etc.) indiscriminately or unthinkingly.”  Contrasting regurgitation of knowledge or facts with digesting it, they both torture the metaphor and ignore its next and more scatological stage. 

But that word is also part of my personal history of testing. 

In sixth or seventh grade, regurgitate was a vocabulary word that delighted the boys in my class who mimicked its action to the disgust of the girls. Regurgitation was on the vocab test and I guess all of us got it right, which says something about methods of instruction. 

Were there testing critics who thought that tests were ‘regurgitation’ in 1963? Certainly, there were critics of standardized testing when introduced due to the influence of Horace Mann in the mid-nineteenth century. But searching the media of that time does not reveal critics so passionate or plentiful as today. Their use of the word ‘regurgitate’ is a good example of the intensity of antipathy.

For those of you who were not in class that day, regurgitate means “To eject or expel again … to bring (food, liquid, or gas) up from the stomach to the mouth (involuntarily or voluntarily, and typically in small quantities” or “to repeat (facts, ideas, etc.) indiscriminately or unthinkingly.”  Contrasting regurgitation of knowledge or facts with digesting it, they both torture the metaphor and ignore its next and more scatological stage. In sixth or seventh grade, regurgitate was a vocabulary word that delighted the boys in my class who mimicked its action to the disgust of the girls. Regurgitation was on the test and I guess all of us got it right. Were there testing critics who thought that tests were ‘regurgitation’ in 1963? Perhaps, but they were not so passionate or plentiful as today.  

Vocabulary test formats in the 1960s were usually a kind of multiple choice where you had to draw lines between rows in two columns: one end at the word in question and the other at its correct definition. The resulting diagram on your test paper looked like a cosmograph. That word — cosmograph — was not on the vocabulary test.  

Regurgitation was just a fancy word for puking, which made its appearance in our lessons hilarious because we weren’t allowed to say puking. Those who hate tests don’t say puking either, but they do seem to suggest that any educational system employing standardized tests — those “in which the content and format of the test and the conditions of testing (such as timing, directions, use of calculators) are controlled to make them the same for all test takers” — encourages a kind of intellectual and developmental eating disorder. Thought of that way, testing seems easy to hate as part of an oppressive hierarchical system that continues to marginalize and disadvantage minority groups, a tool of “institutional structures for wealth accumulation (that) have historically favored white males”. Even if it’s just a stimulus to memories of stress and even failure, testing is an easy attractor of odium. (Odium was another one of those vocabulary words, but not everyone got that one right.)  

For me, it’s different: my personal history of testing haunts me but never filled me with hate. Perhaps because tests provided entry to a life that I otherwise would not have enjoyed. (Don’t bother Googling: I am a very white male so that life had built-in advantages as well.) Reflecting on all my tests taken, regurgitation seems wrong as a metaphor. The process of test taking seems to be more akin to completing jigsaw puzzles, but under circumstances where not each individual possessed all of the necessary pieces;  some of us had ‘edges and corners’ in our possession long before sitting for the exam. Regurgitation is not what happens in test-taking. However, regarding my experience as a senior executive in the world’s greatest testing organization, feeling like puking did sometimes rise up. More on that anon.

But I hope that any readers who hate testing will comment or even those who detested just a particular test or testing experience will please share and thus enrich this personal history of testing.  

3 thoughts on “Test Hatred I

  1. Greg Mulligan Post author

    Wholesale test taking which many of us were subjected to was as you suggest mostly a regurgitation of undigested information. Through osmosis, strong memory and natural ability students acquired and retained differing amounts of knowledge . There always seemed to be an unfairness Inherent in the process in that success on these exams were very much dependent on the quality of instruction you received both long and short term.For example in one of my formative grades ,in a class with 47 kids , the teacher took ill in the Fall and didn’t return until late Winter.The substitute ,a mother of one of my classmates, could keep order but may not have finished school herself. It was not a good year to be evaluated. It is fair to say that many students with similar levels of innate intelligence who are prepared by instructors with varying degrees of expertise produce results which are not indicative of their potential yet we continue to treat these scores as if they were immutable.

    Reply
    1. testingapersonalhistory

      What a story! And I am sure others have similar ones like the substitute Mom. This is a prime and eloquent example of what I hope we can produce here: a personal history of testing that illuminates all of its features, which encompass mistakes and miracles, inequities and improvements, perils and possibilities. Thanks for being commenter #1, Greg, and I hope earnestly you will offer your considerable experience frequently here.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Not All Tests Are The Same – Testing: A Personal History

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