A standardized test is defined as any form of test that requires all test takers to answer the same questions or a selection of questions from a common bank of questions in the same manner and is graded in a standard or consistent way. In reality, all teenagers know it is so much more than that. It is the ghost haunting every high school student, the boogeyman that comes every spring; the existential dread that comes with one hour of intensive testing that supposedly defines who you are.
I have been taking standardized tests since the third grade and am well aware of the dread that starts to creep up as spring approaches. Every teacher would stress how important it was that I do well and that I get a good score. Even some of the teachers I consider my most treasured mentors turned me into an overachieving elementary schooler obsessed with test scores. I wanted to know how well I could possibly do and what I could do to get there. I spent hours after school prepping and practicing and even saw an occupational therapist in school to improve my handwriting to make my state tests easier to grade.
I succeeded over and over again, getting the highest score in my class or my grade and receiving praise from my teachers, but it was never fulfilling. It felt like an empty accomplishment. As if I’d hiked up a mountain to find the view is blocked by buildings. I continued my cycle of prep, success, and empty accomplishment until my freshman year of high school.
Math was never my strongest subject and I always worked twice as hard to understand the topics that seemed to come easily to my classmates, but Geometry was ten times worse than anything I had ever struggled with before. For some unbeknownst reason, my brain couldn’t process it. I failed test after test and struggled with every single homework. My parents got me a tutor and I leveled out in school, but still was drowning when it came to the concepts of triangles and complementary angles. As the New York State Geometry Regents Exam approached I felt a different kind of dread which was worse than I had felt before any other standardized test, but I shoved it down and decided to work as hard as I possibly could. I bought every prep book, I showed up to every study session, and then the day came.
The actual test is a blur to me, I don’t remember anything except a question about airplanes that made me cry. I walked out with a great sense of relief that I finished, and would never have to calculate anything about shapes ever again, but I also felt a deep uncertainty. I checked for scores every day, obsessively refreshing the Department of Education website. About a week after the test, I refreshed one last time and two numbers filled my screen. Fifty-eight. Huge, glaring painful numbers. I looked at my computer screen not knowing what to do next or how to process this. How could have failed? I didn’t even get a 65 – the bare minimum. I called my friend crying and she came over with brownies and chips and seltzer. We built a blanket fort on the floor, and I hid from my failures under a blanket with my best friend and a Tupperware of brownies.
For months after I failed I couldn’t bear to tell people. My face would get hot and I would feel like the world was collapsing around me. I couldn’t bear to admit my failures. School was my thing. I was the girl who did better than everybody. How could I admit to everyone that it was all a lie and that I’m actually the girl who fails? I let myself be defined by my standardized test score. I let myself be consumed by it. I became my standardized test score. In my head, I was basically a walking 58 with a giant sign that said “failure.”
This past year I started a math class that did not include a standardized test at the end of the year – which was something I hadn’t done since the second grade. In my head, I prepared myself for my inevitable failure, but to my surprise, it never happened. I understood the concepts and I scored well on my tests. When my teacher told me that I was good at math I laughed. When he asked me why I was laughing, and I said because I’m awful at math. He sighed and said, “You, Sister Sasha, are wonderful at math. You’ve just been forced to learn it too fast your whole life and were never able to truly process the concepts. “
I realized that he was absolutely right. Every math class I previously have taken rushed through the curriculum in order to teach everything in time for the standardized test. The tests I had held so dear had failed me. In my desire to succeed at testing I never truly learned.
This marked a significant turning point in how I viewed my relationship with standardized tests. I openly told people I failed the Geometry Regents, not feeling the same deep shame I felt before. I thought of how my father can make a meal out of any scraps of food in the house, and how my brother sees the world so deeply and beautifully at only twelve years old, and how my mother can make the worst situations funny. I thought of how these profoundly complex and intelligent traits could never be evaluated by a test created by a group of rich businessmen. I realized how many wonderful things about myself could never be evaluated by a state-administered exam. I freed myself from the mental prison that I had created and I felt better than I had in years. I went to my classes excited, with no objective except to learn, and I did things that made me happy without worrying about whether they contributed to my future success.
Yesterday I took the SAT, the biggest standardized test of my life, and I felt calmer than I had in any other test. I felt capable and strong, and I knew deep in my core that this would not define me. I am defined by so many more important things. We are all so much more complex than a series of numbers and a bubble on a Scantron. We are all beautiful, unique beings that have big important roles in this world.
It took me seventeen years to see myself as more than a number. I feel so full of hopes and dreams, and those dreams don’t fit in a grade point rubric