Even now, the dream is as real as it was two years ago, when he woke up trembling in his garden apartment, the night before the state bar exam.
He had taken a review course and studied for months. He had stopped dating, had grown a beard. This test meant his life; he knew this just as surely as he had known it four years before, when he took the law school admissions test, and before that when he took the college admissions test, and before that the pre-college admissions test, and before that the one for private school.
And now, though he has finished with filling spaces with a No. 2 pencil, he still has the dream every once in awhile, he still awakens trembling. The dream is fuzzy, feelings more than pictures. He is late for the exam, frantic. Then he is finding his seat. People are already scribbling. He opens the test. The booklet is blank . . .
"The catastrophe of the test situation is enough to make people physically sick," says Washington psychologist James Gray. "People may become nauseous, some sweat, there may be heart palpitations or dizziness. Others simply flee: they are compelled, when the test is passed out, to leave the room."
For some, like the attorney, written tests are symbols of catastrophes of other kinds, Gray says. "Waking anxieties" of the present--for example, a big case in court or a visit from the home office--can manifest themselves in test anxieties of the past. And if midnight demons visit some in the form of ominous little booklets, it is because written tests hover at every turn in our lives. We are conditioned to be tested, taught to regard and be regarded as a function of how well we score.
Tests may mean what jobs we have and how much money we make, where we live and even whom we marry. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, people were chemogenetically engineered, decanted as socialized human beings, as future emotional engineers or sewage workers.
In our computer-scored world, we are first asked to mark in the blanks. The numbers are our destiny. Seven hundreds make us Alpha-Plus Intellectuals. Three hundreds make us Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons.
It has been estimated that 95 percent of the people in the United States have taken a standardized test and that the testing market is worth $300 million a year, more than $1.32 for every man, woman and child in the country. There are group tests with pencil and paper, individual tests given orally and tests that require playing with blocks. Tests are used to select the capable, to monitor progress, to assess the effectiveness of training or education.
Written, standardized tests are required for selling insurance in Illinois, fighting fires in Philadelphia, captaining a ship in the merchant marine, receiving a scholarship from the state of Maryland, Union Carbide or the Brotherhood of Steamfitters. The District of Columbia requires tests for licensing in 22 different professions, from cosmetologist to podiatrist.
The definitive compendium of tests, Tests in Print II, by Oscar K. Buros, lists 2,585 of the most popular tests available in this country, published by 496 different companies. Last year, 200 million standardized test papers were handed out in our nation's public schools. Some 1.5 million students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), another million took the rival American College Testing Program Assessment (ACT). One or both of these were required by 90 percent of all American colleges. Standardized tests are required by all but two of the 126 accredited medical schools, and by all 168 of the law schools.
Drivers' exams were taken by 5.2 million people last year, civil service tests by more than 1 million. Even Sears, Roebuck & Company gives tests, in-house originals that quantify qualities like ability to alphabetize and "executive personality." Some newspapers give writers and editors spelling tests before considering them for jobs.
If we've been conditioned to feel the gravity of tests, to hate them, to fear them, or even to regard them as culturally or racially biased, we've also been conditioned to crave them. When we see a quiz in Cosmopolitan,
we get out a pen and score
Sexu- ally Adventurous Are You? Do Your Love Styles Mesh? Is He Fabulous or Is He a Fink? We build our vocabulary with Reader's Digest, test our trivia in Sport. Then we turn the page upside down and see if we were right.
"Experience makes us anxious about tests on the one hand, and to look for positive reinforcement on the other," says Ewing L. Phillips, a George Washington University professor of psychology. "If we get an A on a test or 600 on the boards, that reassures us that we are smart or smarter than the next person. We think we're going to be okay because we passed the quiz . . . or got 19 out of 20 right in the Reader's Digest. We seek the good things that come to us when the world considers us bright or smart or above average."
Our nation seems to need tests. In the beginning, at the turn of the century, tests were seen as the means by which America's great opportunities could be apportioned equally. If he tried hard enough and had the ability, an immigrant boy from Brooklyn could find himself at Harvard.
Tests were deemed the answer to the societal chaos brought by the Industrial Revolution. With the coming of the machines and the growth of cities, a country raised on local autonomy and informal arrangements found itself beset by corruption, crime and malaise.
What emerged historian Robert Wiebe has called a "search for order." Progress was linked to efficiency; effiency was linked to testing. "Whatever exists at all exists in some amount," said educational psychologist and testing pioneer Edward Thorndike. With raw data on individual abilities, human talents could be marshaled. Standards could govern people as they governed the width of railroad tracks. Order could be restored.
One of the first American standardized tests was developed by Henry Goddard, of the Vineland, N.J. School for the Feebleminded. It was adapted from Frenchman Alfred Binet's Intelligence Scale. On Binet's scale, for example, a normal 8-year- old was one who could count backward from 20 to 0 and knew the date;
a normal 12-year-old
could put words arranged in random order into a sentence; a normal adult could give three differences between a president and a king.
Goddard's test was first used by U.S. officials to identify candidates for forced sterilization. From 1907 through 1928, more than 8,500 people were sterilized for eugenical reasons. The same sort of test was used on immigrants at Ellis Island. Results in 1913 showed that 87 percent of Russian immigrants, 83 percent of Jews, 80 percent of Hungarians and 79 percent of Italians were feebleminded. The tests, brandished by xenophobics, helped bring about the National Origins Act of 1924, which placed quotas on immigration by country of origin.
By the late 1920s, said one American educator, America was engaged in "an orgy of tabulation." More than 2 million children in 111 large cities were being tested every year with one or more of about a dozen tests available. Some 200 U.S. colleges had begun using mental tests for admissions. Students were being "tracked" into opportunity on the assumption that these tests measured a genetically determined ability to learn.
Then the Cold War. Opportunity came to be seen as a weapon instead of a tool. President Truman's Commission on Higher Education, based on the results of intelligence tests given to military personnel in World War II, found that at least 49 percent of all Americans had the mental ability to complete 14 years of education. Millions of students marched into testing rooms, their futures to be determined on standardizy to alphaed scales.
Buoyed by faith in the possibility of legislating social change, the federal government launched preschool and educational enrichment programs, job-training programs, grant programs. Cities, counties and states established community colleges. Universities admitted a much broader range of students than ever before. But when the high expectations of the 1960s crashed into the economic realities of the 1970s, tests became a symbol of the diminished prospects for the average American. Because they were one of the visible instruments in the process of allocating economic opportunity, tests were seen as creating winners and loosers.
Standardized tests were attacked for being racially, sexually and culturally biased. Ralph Nader damned testing. In a Nader-published study of the Educational Testing Service (ETS)--a nonprofit publisher of more than 160 tests taken by more than 5 million people in 30 countries --it was said that the company's most widely used exam, the SAT, was no more able to predict student performance in college than would a roll of the dice. In a look at 827 ETS validity studies between 1964 and 1974, Nader found that the SAT delivered an average accuracy of 11.9 percent. ETS strongly disagrees.
Spoofs of standardized intelligence tests came running off the presses in lampoonish social protest. From Watts came the ghetto intelligence test, "Attention Honkies: Are You Deprived?":
Cheap chitlings will taste rubbery unless they are cooked long enough. How long?
a) 15 minutes.
b) two hours.
c) 24 hours.
d) one week--on a low flame.
A "handkerchief head" is:
a) a cool cat.
b) a porter.
c) an Uncle Tom.
d) a hoddi.
And a group of junior high students in Des Moines, Iowa, came up with the S.H.A.F.T. Test:
What are waffle stompers?
a) a pancake chef.
c) ice cream sandwiches
What can you get at "Alice's Restaurant?":
a) soul food.
b) storybooks for children.
c) anything you want.
Bernard McKenna, program development specialist for the antitesting National Education Association, says that tests exist "because of the assumption that you can't educate everyone for everything. So you have to have some device, some economical way, that is easily administered to determine who should be a doctor and who should be a garbage man.
"An EKG can measure the heart," McKenna says, "but can a test judge human potential? Human beings can be so complex, you can never expect to be precise. America has a mania for precise numbers and measures. When I go to buy a new mattress, Consumer's Guide tells me to count the number of coils in the springs, and knowing to do this I feel better. The government, businessmen, everyone wants some simple way to know how the system is running, on the naive assumption that they can find a simple index to know how to allocate resources."
Test makers and users assert that tests are the only way to sort the masses. Gregory Anrig, president of ETS, says Nader's findings are "mathematically wrong. If you rolled dice, there would be a 50 percent accuracy rate." Using the SAT in combination with grades, he said, would yield about 90 percent accuracy.
"We say we're an egalitarian society, that the fact that you're poor doesn't matter, it's what you can do," Anrig says in defense of standardized tests. "While the doors are open, the basis for doing things in this country is merit. By and large, tests report that. You can't very well choose one of 500 applicants on the basis that she has flowing blond hair. We don't have the time or knowlege at our disposal to do things any other way."
"The fact is," says G.W. professor Phillips, "we're stuck with tests."