Jack Ohman

Testing 1, 2, 3…you don’t have to be a STAR, baby, to be in my school ...

When I was growing up, the most stressful moments of my life involved standardized test taking. Not that I did badly on them, exactly, but virtually everyone I knew felt the same way, because testers always seemed to test things we hadn’t been taught.

Standardized tests have been around for a long time, but they really came into vogue during and after World War II, where the U.S. government had to rack and stack millions of Americans in various military and civilian jobs in order to find out just who, precisely, could do what.

For example, my dad had to take the Army General Classification Test when he entered the military en route to the Korean War. He was a very smart guy (he later got a Ph.D. in plant pathology), but the Army wasn’t really in need of smart guys; they were in need of guys who could fire a rifle. He wanted to be a surveyor (smart guys do that), but Uncle Sam wanted to make sure he didn’t do that, so they gave him their version of the IQ test at 3 a.m., after a 10-mile hike.

He scored a 103 (average), which was about 37 points lower than he would have scored had he not had the hike and the sleep deprivation. And, yes, here’s your M-1 rifle and enjoy your guided tour north of the 38th Parallel.

Since I heard this anecdote, I have been a bit skeptical of standardized tests.

There’s a bill in the California Assembly now that would allow school districts to opt out of the STAR tests, which is the state’s current method of rating schools and students. In some schools, where, say, affluent, non-sleep deprived students with educated parents are the norm, students tend to do better on these tests than kids who are in chaotic households where mom and dad don’t subscribe to The New Yorker or The Economist.

I had to take the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), and some other college placement test. Since I was going to the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture (yeah, go figure: they have a great editorial cartooning program), they didn’t require the SAT. The PSAT is just like the SAT in that it contained questions like these:

VOCABULARY: Choose one of the following words that most correctly defines the word.


A.) Piquant

B.) Etiolated

C.) Dilatory

D.) We made this word up

MATH: Solve for x: 3x(4y)+2z+(Reggie Jackson Slugging Average) = 5xyz

A.) x

B.) x-ish

C.) x? What’s x?

D.) Your accountant will do this for you later in life

One of the other standardized tests I took in 10th grade was the Kuder Vocational Preference Test (now jazzily re-titled the Kuder Career Interest Assessment -- “vocational” sounds so … vocational), which was designed to predict what profession would by right for you. This wasn’t a test that measured anything that you actually knew, it was more of a survey. A typical question would be something like this:

Would you rather:

A.) use a Stilson wrench to smash a watermelon to bits

B.) sit quietly and watch “The Rockford Files”

C.) pilot a really cool jet using mental powers while playing the viola

D.) add up long columns of numbers

In my case, for some reason, I kept choosing the answer “add up long columns of numbers,” a social lie, which led the Kuder test to reveal that I should be an accountant. Crestfallen, I really wanted to be governor of Minnesota, which turned out later to be way easier to do than I thought. They never asked me if I wanted to be a WWF wrestler, I guess.

In short, my experience with standardized testing has left me with a feeling of insouciance.

Oh, insouciance is a good word that I can never remember for tests, either. Or now. I had to look it up.

And that leaves me with a strong sense of preverdantiantionarance, too.