Like all children, I enjoyed summertime. The summer of 1994 was a particularly exciting one: I’d be going to a camp for two weeks for the first time, and then traveling with my parents on vacation.
Earlier that year I took several state-mandated standardized tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. I was in fourth grade. I remember feeling nervous while taking the tests: everything at school stopped, the normal routines and lessons to which I’d grown accustomed ceased and the test became our focus. On the day of the test our teacher handed out the workbooks with the image of the state of Connecticut on the front. The paper was gray, thin, and smelled like grassy pulp. I don’t remember the questions themselves, but I do remember looking around and seeing my classmates taking the test also. I remember the time written in chalk on the chalkboard in front of us, alerting us to when we’d started and when we would have to stop, and our teacher waiting for us to finish, watching to make sure we didn’t cheat. It was a little unpleasant, but largely unmemorable.
After school ended, maybe the week after school was over and summer was about to begin, I remember sitting in my room. My mother knocked on the door and asked me to come outside, where our house had a small deck. I followed her and my father was sitting in shirtsleeves. The sun was strong and my mother sat next to him. In his lap was an envelope with the image of Connecticut on the front. He reached into the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper, which had lines of text printed in block letters. There were numbers and words placed next to one another: my state test scores.
My father asked me to come over and look at the piece of paper. I did, and saw that under one of the categories it said “unsatisfactory.” He said that if I did not score higher on such tests in the future, then I wouldn’t be allowed to go to summer camp. I remember feeling nervous and confused. It got under my skin. The feeling was a kind of anxious disturbance, a guilt without understanding. It was the first time a state test had effected my life in some way, and I didn’t understand why it might be so important that I get certain scores on them.
I recall this memory because standardized testing is uniquely prevalent in contemporary educational policy and practice. Students take standardized tests now more than ever, and the results of these tests are much more consequential: teacher salaries, school administration, and district funding are now all dependent to some degree on the results of test scores.
I would like to know what the political and economic context of that state test was at the time I took it in 1994. I read these two moments of contact with the state test (taking it and seeing the result) as two interpellations, or hailings, by the combined forces of the state and economy (the repressive state apparatus holding down the social formation, composed of modes of production). The test is an ideological state apparatus with a certain character, which played a certain role in reproducing the relations of production of the society around me by interpellating me.
So I have some questions. I’d like to know more about the state and the economy at that moment in 1994, and what the functionality of that ideological apparatus was. I want to know about the repressive state apparatuses, particularly the educational policy and its history that made the test necessary (local and national). I want to know what the purpose of the test was, politically and economically. I want to know both the economics of that test (who made it, for how much, etc) and the economic context of the test (what the country’s GDP, unemployment, and demographic breakdowns at local and national levels).
I am not necessarily interested in claiming that the test was bad or good (for me, for others), but rather understanding its social role–the social issue of the test– using the theory we have constructed in the first half of the semester.
Two sets of questions emerge:
First, what was the average household income in my neighborhood, as compared with the rest of the state and the US? What were the demographics of that region at the time? What was the wider economic context in the US? What was the US’s economic power at the time, globally-speaking? What were the economic differences between white, middle class families and families of other races and backgrounds in that area and across the country? More specifically, were the tests created by a private company? Were they graded by that company? Which company was it, and what was the nature of the contract with my school district? Who owned that company and how did they get that contract? Second, politically: What were the educational policies in Connecticut at that time? Were they informed by federal policy as well? Were schools held accountable in the same way to those tests as schools are now? What was the frequency and intensity of testing at that time? What was the political rhetoric about education, and curricular trends popular at the time?
While investigating testing circumstances of the past may serve as reference information, the testing situation today is of timely concern. If you would like to examine one laughable/cryable accounting of this current state of affairs, pick up a copy of: Making the Grades – My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry by Todd Farley. The crux of this expose is found in the author’s statement, “I would say standardized testing is akin to a scientific experiment in which everything is a variable.”