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Rebecca Rider column: The horrors of testing

Imagine this: You are sitting at your desk and the teacher passes out a test. You flip open the cover, scan the questions, and find — to your horror — it’s all material you haven’t studied. You look up and all of your classmates are reading away, pencils scribbling to fill in bubbled answers. The room is full of the shuffle of pages turning. But you, you haven’t studied. You don’t know anything on the test. A test on which your entire grade depends.

It’s one of the most cliche depictions of a nightmare, right? It’s actually something that happened to me.

I was a junior in high school, and it was a U.S. History class. The test was the End of Course exam, or EOC. For those of you who missed the age of standardized tests, the EOC is a test taken at the end of core high school courses. It counts for 25 percent of a student’s grade, and determines their eligibility to graduate.

Put simply: fail the test, fail the class.

So, I spent the entire year learning about U.S. History, from Columbus to Hitler. I say to Hitler because that is where the class stopped, to the best of my remembrance. We had a brief unit on the Civil Rights movement before we ran out of time, and frantic exam review began. The same thing happened in every history class I ever had. In World History my Freshman year we didn’t even make it to Napoleon. I learned about the world post-World War II exactly once, in eighth grade Social Studies.

So this was normal, and while I would have liked to learn about more recent history in class, I took what I was given. Which brought me to this bright, late-spring afternoon. When exam day rolled around, I felt confident. I’d always been good at tests, and I liked history. It was a lot of information, but I was sure I’d pass without too much trouble. For the record, I did study — but studying can’t prepare you for a test on something you never learned.

Until I opened the exam and read through the first page. All of the questions were about Ronald Regan. About the 1980s. Things I had, never, in the entirety of my school career, been taught. And things that I was a little too young to remember. I looked around, no one else seemed to be having trouble.

But why would they? EOCs are color coded — each color has a different set of questions, a different focus. Most of the class probably received questions they knew the answer to, or had at least learned.

I have never felt such blind panic. I probably wasted a good 15 or 20 minutes staring at the paper, willing it to be something else. But I had no choice, I had to take the test — I needed to pass the class, after all.

So I guessed. I chose answers by process of elimination, critical reading, context clues, things I’d overheard in conversation or a gut feeling. I finished one section of the exam, and hoped it would get easier.

It didn’t. The next was on Carter, and Nixon and so on. There wasn’t a single question on that exam I knew the answer to. There wasn’t a single topic we’d gone over in class. When I hear the phrase “bite the bullet” this is the situation I think of. This frantic hour and a half on the second floor of an old school building where I filled in bubble after bubble on the answer sheet, double and triple guessing every choice, scanning as far ahead and behind as I was allowed for any clues.

Despite everything, I finished the exam early and waited out the remaining time with dread. The weeks until I got the results were equally painful. I was sure I’d failed.

But shockingly, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I didn’t. I passed with flying colors and pure, blind, dumb luck — with a high score, even. I never thought it was my teacher’s fault. He had to teach 400 years worth of detailed history, and while many teachers before him have done that in shorter time frames than 10 months, he tried to do a thorough job of it, and I can’t fault him for that.

Thankfully, the U.S. History EOC was discontinued in 2010. But I can’t help but wonder how many other students have this experience in testing season. And sure, standardized tests may provide a common, level bar for all students — but what’s the point of them, if the material is so far removed from the classroom?

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