Too Early for Apgar

I was born early.

My mother, by then familiar with the routine of births via my four older brothers, insisted the nurse admitting her had made a wrong turn in the corridor at Union Hospital in the Bronx; the labor room was in the other direction. But the nurse replied that there was no need for a labor room as I was already peeking my big head out into the world: Mom and I were headed straight for delivery.

I also was born too early for what could have been my first test. A few months later, an Apgar test, offered routinely to most USA newborns since 1952, would have been administered to me. Doctor Virginia Apgar, pioneer of neonatology, the care of the newly born, wouldn’t invent her eponymous scoring system for the Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration of babies until I was already out and about. APGAR was born less than ten miles from that table in the Bronx where I entered the world.

For pre-1952s, there was no such test at the time of birth. As one obstetrician put it, “You took the baby out, cleaned it, and hoped it lived.” Reader, I lived — unlike others pre-Apgar who “could have survived if they had simply been given oxygen or warmed up.”  My personal history of testing did not begin for several years; now I am trying to figure out how to make it end — short of death, which is not a desirable solution. And I hope to persuade others to share their personal history of testing as well in this forum.

My Personal History

Everyone possesses a personal history with testing in the USA. Now that’s a claim, which some may dispute but consider these numbers: (Numbers are great in a history and often help to win arguments or at least make the other person feel as if they lost ) “The average student in America’s big-city public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of 12th grade — an average of about eight a year.” This stat is from a study conducted by a group called The Council of Great City Schools and was  cited by Valerie Strauss, who writes about tests in the Washington Post. (No, I am NOT going to footnote everything in this blog especially all the people who abhor testing whom I will reference excessively. You can Google Valerie — whom I do not know and think is just fine — and make up your own mind. This is a  personal history, not a textbook.)

Why MY personal history of testing? Why should a personal history of testing matter? Because testing matters and because testing continues to create controversy and consternation individually and collectively. And because to paraphrase the Meg Ryan character in You’ve Got Mail, “What is testing if not personal?” The score not only tells about the person, but in many cases the score becomes the person.  Rightly or wrongly, the part becomes the whole. In our histories, these scores are synechdoches —  something that comes to stand for something else, a part that is taken for the whole — of how we were seen and sometimes how we saw ourselves. 

What makes that worthwhile for me to write and for others to read? For a start, I had the privilege and responsibility of serving almost twenty years as the Chief Learning Officer at Educational Testing Service; hereafter referred to as ETS; you may substitute your favorite epithet if it makes you feel better. Testing became my life in 2001 when I first came to ETS (which is in Lawrenceville, not Princeton as stated on the letterhead) It was there amidst a dedicated, sharp, and kind community of scientists, educators, and others that the impact of how much testing and its larger domains of respectively educational measurement and education matter resonated with me again and again.

Okay, but why invite others to share a personal history of testing?

As the distinguished folklorist, Henry Glassie wrote: “History tangles the past with the present in webs of fact. Its practice is to treat things that exist here and now as though they concerned the past and to use them in new compositions designed to equip people for their trip into the future.”  When we study any history including our own equipping ourselves to better navigate our ongoing trip into the future is part of what we expect. Making sense of our personal history with any domain whether religion, sex, or career might uncover not only mistaken impressions that impeded our designs but their sources whether biases, misinformation, or anachronistic paradigms. Perhaps we will see testing in a different way that we have a collection of personal histories to examine and compare. My own reasons for probing this arcade of my own past also include wishing to exorcise some demons encountered during my days as a non-expert in the world of testing. But more of that in a later post.

An Invitation to Share YOUR History of Testing

Did your personal history of testing begin with the Apgar? That would have been an innocuous start.  Nobody in either the general public or the high priesthood of testing complains or boasts about the Apgar. Maybe that’s because babies get a second chance at their Apgar score right away? No one asks for your first Apgar score when you are applying to college. (No one asks for your birthweight either, and yet birthweight influences life outcomes greatly as I learned from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, but that gets ahead of my history. If you’re curious, I was strapping from the get-go.)

There is no brigade of anti-testing armies attacking the Apgar test and demanding we stop subjecting newborns to an exam. Of course, critics would scoff that they are not talking about that kind of test even though the Apgar does what the best tests do: allows someone to make a claim as to performance and suggests remedial actions needed if necessary.

Neither is there a cohort of admirers reminding us how remarkable and lifesaving Apgar’s invention has proved; no supporters jaw about the ingenious and consequential achievement of creating a scale of 0 to 10 points for what matters most when a baby is born. That’s not a good thing. Virginia Apgar did get a Google Doodle in 2018, but more people should know about her and her test. More people should know more about all kinds of testing, and that’s where your personal history of testing can benefit others. It could be an actual experience with the test. Your account could focus on some opportunity opened or closed as a result of testing. If you’re in the field, learning about an area of educational measurement that you think deserves more attention would benefit others.

What might emerge from this effort is not a tapestry but a kind of quilt of accounts and opinions about testing. I will moderate all of the submissions, but only to avoid the kind of rancor that corrodes conversation. I have already admitted my bias on this subject. Tests came to define my life long before I came to ETS at almost 50 years old. My own take is that the influence of tests upon my life might be even greater than what is felt by almost all of my fellow Americans. And Americans get tested a lot. But I might be wrong and that’s one of the things that could be gained from this history.

There are no wrong answers

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? Or the one that was hardest? Or the one that provided satisfaction and affirmation? Is our personal history now complicated by watching our children take tests and be tested? Any and all thoughts about testing are welcome. Even your Apgar score. Just hit reply to this post. I don’t intend to extend this exploration indefinitely. There are a number of facets that interests me enough to offer them as starters for readers and potential contributors: heritability, fairness, validity, reliability, meritocracy, and learning. The last one looms over what testing has and has not yet accomplished. Learning, which existed in all of our histories, needs to be a more prominent part of the future than ever. Understanding how testing helps that to happen is a prominent interest of this blog. I hope to see your entry in our parade of personal histories of testing.

T.J. Elliott

4 thoughts on “Too Early for Apgar

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