The Testing Bubble Getting Artistic with Standardized-Test Answer Sheets
The seventh-century Chinese emperor Yangdi is usually remembered as a megalomaniac who led his newly united nation into a series of debilitating wars. But Yangdi’s real legacy is his development of the world’s first standardized testing system. The idea was to locate China’s most talented rural scholars and bring them into the nascent empire’s civil service.
The history of education is filled with such earnest, progressive hopes for stan- dardized testing; Napoleon built the French bureaucracy in much the same way, and the SAT, for all its flaws, played an important role in opening up the Ivy League to Jews, Catholics, and public-school students.
The University of California and other elite colleges now acknowledge that the SAT is an incomplete measure of what students know and discriminatory against low-income students of color. But standardized testing is booming in primary and secondary schools. For the past decade, No Child Left Behind has required states to assess children in math and reading every year from third through eighth grades. The Obama administration has made test-based “accountability” a cornerstone of his school reform agenda, even asking states to develop standardized tests for preschoolers.
Today standardized tests are big business, but the testing world was once dominated by nonprofits. The first effective multiple-choice test-scoring machine was developed in the early 1960s by a University of Iowa education professor named Everett Franklin Lindquist, who believed the only legitimate use of a test score was in helping a classroom teacher diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and modify lesson plans accordingly. In 1968, the University of Iowa sold Lindquist’s technology to Westinghouse, which in turn sold it to the textbook and testing giant Pearson. The Scantron Corporation was founded as a competitor in 1972; instead of selling grading machines, Scantron gave them away free to schools and then charged for the special answer-sheets.
Today both Scantron and Pearson are owned by M & F Holding Company, the conglomerate of buyout king Ronald Perelman. And the nonprofit Educational Testing Service—the home of the AP, SAT, GRE, and TOEFL—now has a for-profit arm; one of its projects is a computer program that claims to provide “reliable evaluations” of student essays in 20 seconds.
As standardized testing plays an increasingly central role in education, school districts from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., have been rocked by cheating scandals. Adults at dozens of schools in both cities are suspected of changing students’ answers on multiple-choice tests. But these scandals have done little to derail the testing juggernaut. Nor have policy makers heeded the sage advice of psychometricians like Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, who concluded after decades of research that “we usually cannot distinguish between real and bogus gains” on standardized exams.
In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is spending $2 million this year to develop 52 new standardized tests, including some for kindergarteners. The Charlotte Observer convened a forum of high school students to weigh in on the new testing. “School and classes shouldn’t be based on just giving tests,” said 15-year old Dajha Medley, “although that’s what it has become now.”
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“It wasn't filling in the bubbles that bothered me about taking standardized tests. The first part where you fill in the area for your name and birthdate I really enjoyed actually. One of the first tests like that I took was in sixth grade on a hot, muggy afternoon in Philadelphia. I remember thinking about how at some point it would be over and I could go outside and play a sadistic game with a tennis ball we had invented. By the end I couldn't stay in that room a moment longer; it was like the place was about to implode. I probably got nailed in the back with the ball by Christian Garfield like 10 minutes later.”
Tucker Nichols is an artist based in San Francisco. His work has been shown in galleries and museums around the world.
“Scantron days are the best of times and the worst of times for the smarty-pants, under-12 set. They're moments of victory. Opportunities to prove one's worth in this kickball-obsessed world. But they're also moments of terror—knowing full well that line by line, all future happiness resides in this one little, pink dot.”
Echo Eggebrecht is an artist whose works has appeared in Art in America, Harper's, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, and The New York Times. She lives and works in Brooklyn.
Kevin Zucker has had solo shows at Greenberg Van Doren, Mary Boone, and LFL (NY), Jablonka Luehn (Cologne), Paolo Curti (Milan), and Arario (Beijing), and has been in group exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, and the Brooklyn Museum. He lives in New York.
“A+! Good Job! Excellent Work! Star Student! Super Kid! You Did It! Out of This World! Wow! You Are #1! Amazing! Incredible! Superb! Keep Up the Good Work! +1! Like! Fav! FFFFound!”
Jennifer Daniel is the graphics director at Bloomberg Businessweek. She likes puppies, grapefruit, and central air conditioning. She hates homelessness, iced coffee, and hangnails.
“In elementary school I had to take standardized tests every year using Scantron forms. I hated them with a deep, fiery passion, but I remember always finding some satisfaction in the aesthetics of the bubbles, especially if my answers led to a good-looking pattern within the grid. As a clothing designer, the Scantron serves as a nice canvas for print design. Unfortunately if one were to fill in the
bubbles as I have in this pattern they would absolutely fail.”
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