I'll Be the Proctor, You Be the Gamble

I volunteered to proctor a big standardized test at a high school this week, and what a study in human behavior it was. It’s been 24 hours and I still have the stink of teen angst all over my body. The outfit I was wearing got hormones and self-doubt all over it and I had to throw it away.

Being in a high school for more than a quick run-in to drop off a book or a forgotten term paper leaves a mark on you. Makes you wonder why you ever wanted to get a degree in secondary education. Makes you wonder how the people who actually did get that degree and have jobs in a high school can find the strength to keep going back every September.

My daughter, who has a talent for stepping back and assessing things wisely, said one day, “It’s really weird how we take all the teenagers and put them all in one big building together every day.”

Yeah. Whose bright idea was that? We not only let them congregate, but we require it. Like prison, we punish them if they leave before they’re allowed, we restrict what they can do, and there’s a heavy emphasis on showing movies.

The test that I proctored was the CAT, a test that the kids are pressured into doing good on, threatened with having the Red Bull take out of the cafeteria vending machine if they don’t score at least a 3, despite the fact that the only things that hinge on the CAT test results are school funding and principals’ bragging rights. OK, maybe the teachers’ jobs, but nothing that affects the kids directly.

High school kids are smart enough to know that if they flub the CAT test, it’ll never be traced back to them. They’ll graduate and their GPAs will not be affected. No college will ever hear about your sucky science score. If you do super bad, your school will just let you take it over again on one of make-up test days, until you get the score that makes them look better than the school down the street.

I wanted to give a little speech to the kids right before the testing started - tell them that if they did well I would pass out those little free song cards that I pick up at Starbucks - but I wasn’t allowed. (You don’t have to work in a high school to know that teenagers respond well to bribery and John Mayer.) I also wasn’t allowed to answer any questions, make faces at the kids, use my iPhone or any other electronic device, or walk loudly in heels. I was, however, allowed to go to the bathroom without a chaperone, which is more than I can say for the kids.

High school kids could not be less nervous about these tests. They come slithering in like a huge gray-beige-and-black slug made out of eye liner, backpacks and breath mints. Oozing from their pores are the words I. Don’t. Care. Their eyelids are barely open and they don’t lift their feet up off the floor when they walk.

Despite their teachers’ warnings, they did not have a good breakfast that morning, they did not get a good night’s sleep, and they do not have a positive attitude.

Right up to the start of the test, the kids are cajoled into being just a little bit scared. They are practically frisked for electronic devices, and their coffee cups are confiscated. They may as well be naked with their heads shaved.

Then a guidance counselor gets on the mic and reads instructions, including one for leafing through the test booklet and making sure there are no pages out of order or upside down. You can see in their eyes, they’re thinking, “You mean that’s a possibility? Who’s running this show?” She reads a paragraph on how to fill in the bubbles. “If the bubbles are not filled in correctly, your test will be invalid,” she reads. The test booklet is sealed and the bright blue seal is not allowed to be broken until she says, “Go!” It’s like Mission Impossible III: Sophomore Justice.

When my daughter was little, her kindergarten teacher called it the “Kitty Cat Test” and the kids couldn’t wait to take it and excel on it. Granted, the kindergarten CAT test consisted of knowing what color Big Bird was and what country they lived in, but still. They wanted to do well because they knew there was a chance they’d get a sticker and get to run around in circles on the playground after they were done.

Somewhere between that time and the day they enter high school, the stickers have run out and someone decided rewards will only encourage them.

Hang in there, high school kids. You’ll be out in no time. And on the outside, there’s coffee and free music.

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