The Test Makers (a short story)

o-STANDARDIZED-TEST-facebookThis story was written on March 20th, 2014, while I proctored session 2 of the 6th Grade English Language Arts MCAS.

The Test Makers

Jeremiah tried to glance at his neighbor’s booklet, but the girl’s long right arm was wrapped protectively around her papers as she wrote, her pencil never pausing. He wanted to tip back his chair and look around the edge of the plastic red binder balanced between them, but he could never get away with it. The teacher was always telling him to put his chair down. The reminder was issued so often it had been shortened to simply: “Jer. Chair.” The way the teacher said it, the words rhymed. No, there was nothing he could do.

In paragraph 2, the author uses the phrase ‘a sea of silent soldiers’ to mean that the soldiers are

A)    wet

B)    obedient

C)    numerous

D)   coming

The question was not hard—Jeremiah knew that the phrase ‘a sea of ­­­­­something’ meant a lot of something, and had nothing to do with water. He could easily eliminate A and B, C seemed possible, but it was the last answer choice, D, ‘coming’, that had given him pause. It didn’t fit, and the more he looked at it the more the word stuck out on the page, his imagination working the text into 3-D block letters, then colorful bubbles, the font size way too big. ‘Who would circle that?’ he thought. No one believes that Emporer Qin Shi Huang’s underground army of clay soldiers is going to march into Franklin Middle School on the first day of the Grade 6 English Language Arts Reading Comprehension Exam.

That’s right, Jeremiah remembered, alternately squinting his eyes and raising his forehead to clear his mind: I am taking an exam, and it is already 9:15. The session is half over and I am still on the first passage. He cast a glance at his neighbor, still writing furiously—how does she even think that fast—almost done with her final open response essay. The teacher was pacing the outside of the room, his tie hanging almost to his knees. Was it possible that no one else was bothered by answer D? Did anyone else even have the word ‘coming’ printed ominously in the test booklet. No way to know.

It was cool for March and the teacher had left the window in the back of the room open. The wind blew cold on Jeremiah’s neck and he looked up. Long sheets of display board paper draped the side walls, covering up any signs or posters that might somehow give kids an edge on the test. Like he hadn’t already been told a million times to use process of elimination and write a strong conclusion sentence. Now the pastel-colored drapes were billowing up and he could see Shakespeare smiling on the wall. Jeremiah slid the rubber grip up and down his mechanical pencil, extended the lead, and tapped it back down on the test booklet. ‘Coming.’ 9:45—how was it 9:45 already? Near the front of the room, Ben Baker had already turned in his neatly stacked test materials and taken out a book. Time to move on.

After scanning the second passage, an excerpt from a novel about a boy lost in the woods, Jeremiah went straight to the first question, something about the author’s purpose. Like anyone can really know the author’s purpose. He read the question again: What is the main purpose of making paragraphs 4-6 each one sentence long?

Maybe he just likes the way it looks.

Maybe it is a big joke.

Maybe his computer was doing some kind of weird auto-formatting, like when I push enter and it reorganizes everything into bullet points.

He moved on to the answer choices:

A)    to show that Brian is relaxed

B)    to make the reader feel a sense of panic

C)    to draw attention to the character’s surroundings

D)   because he doesn’t understand

Jeremiah had a strange and immediate reaction: he stood straight up, his legs pushing the chair back and making the table squeak against the floor. This is not right! I know how this test works—how they put two clearly wrong answers and one that is almost right, how you have to read the sentence just before the quotation to figure out what it really means, how they try to trick you with literal and figurative meanings—and he knew, absolutely knew that the test makers would never include that answer choice. It didn’t even have the same grammatical construction as the other three—the test makers never do that—and what does he not understand?? He wasn’t even really sure who “he” was…the author? Or maybe his teacher with his stupid tie dragging along the floor? Or maybe Ben, who clearly hadn’t seriously considered this question seriously if he was already finished, but of course, how could he understand? How could anyone understand the ways of the test makers, locked away in their maximum security office littered with cut-up novels and magazine clippings, dictionaries of idioms, vocabulary lists, spreadsheets with types of figurative language, question type checklists, cultural sensitivity checklists, cameras, calendars, maybe a motivational poster exclaiming: “Our Test is Best,” and all day long they swap papers checking for ambiguous questions and bias and adherence to state standards and I should have known they had a sense of humor by the way they make our poor teacher read out those same directions over and over: “answers recorded outside the answer box may not be scored, GO ON, answers marked in your test booklet may not be scored, STOP, answers marked in anything but a #2 pencil may not be scored, GO ON, STOP, GO ON, STOP, and now that twisted humor has leaked onto the test itself; the rigorous quality control protocol they follow has broken down; somehow this booklet slipped by and everything is riding on this question about purpose—what purpose? Whose purpose? Who is “he”?!?

“I don’t understand.”

Jeremiah was startled by his own voice and opened his eyes expecting to see the whole class staring at him. They weren’t. They were gone to lunch. The teacher sat behind his desk, the end of his tie piled up around his feet.

“Jer. Chair.”

Jeremiah sat down. He found his place, and slowly drew a dark ring around the inside of his answer bubble. The outline complete, he moved the tip of his pencil back and forth across the interior until the letter “D” was completely obscured.




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