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Chapter 10. WORKING IN THEORY

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MAKING THE GRADES

write questions only a certain population can answer. They don’t write questions in German, because then only speakers of that

Teutonic language could answer; they don’t write questions anymore about “regattas,” because there are only so many scions of aristocratic, sailing families in the test-taking population these days; and they don’t write questions that are racist or sexist, or are disparaging to any particular religion/nation/culture/ subculture/sub-subculture (we can’t be hurting anyone’s feelings now), or are focused on any topic that might be disturbing or upsetting or even the slightest bit unsettling to the delicate student population (because having to face up to the realities of the world might be so discombobulating, little Billy or Mary— or Jose or Paulita, DeShawn or LaKeesha, Hideki or Chidori,

Jagdeep or Amita—might not be able to concentrate enough on the vitally important test in front of them).

But it seemed to me obsessing over those guidelines could be something of a slippery slope, and it was a slope that I thought we slid down too often. While conceding some topics definitely needed to be avoided on tests (mature topics like sex and drugs, controversial topics like abortion or the war in Iraq),

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Chapter 4. OFF TASK

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4

Off Task

B

IG DUMMY that I am, I did fail both qualifying tests on that first writing project, although I was also lucky enough to discover that didn’t necessarily preclude me from actually working. As noted, NCS was kind enough to rehire me, post–qualifying test failures, as soon as it discovered it was short on personnel. Still, while it may have un-fired me, the company did not do so carelessly. It did so only by putting me on “probation,” informing me that although I could come back to work, I could only do so conditionally. When rehiring me, the HR department was very clear a close eye would be kept on me and my kind.

While I wasn’t exactly thrilled to return to work bearing the stigma of probation, I did prefer it to unemployment.

When I asked Greg, however, exactly what “on probation” meant, he had a good laugh.

“Please,” he said. “How many unemployed people with college degrees do you think there are in this town? How many people willing to do this work? Trust me—they’re not getting rid of you now.”

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Chapter 6. THE ORACLE OF PRINCETON

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MAKING THE GRADES

“They’re too kind,” I said, “too kind.” I pretended I couldn’t imagine getting such high praise, but in my head I was beaming, those fawning reviews of my managerial style—nay, of my very essence—confirming my long-held belief that I was extraordinary.

Maria continued reading to herself, shaking her head with disbelief. “I’ve never seen such evaluations,” she said, and before she walked away, she patted my arm. “Great job, Todd.”

I was proud I’d had such an effect on my scorers and happy to have made such a favorable impression on Maria.

Those flattering reviews occurred at just the right time, because by the spring of ’98, the testing business was booming, and NCS was beginning to open scoring centers all across

America. They would need experienced supervisors to travel to other states to oversee projects, and when Maria thought about whom to send, my name was near the top of her list.

Finally I was getting somewhere, because even if my efforts to get into the Writers’ Workshop hadn’t exactly panned out (a tactful rejection letter having landed in my mailbox that very spring), traveling for NCS meant two things: four more dollars an hour, and living on an expense account. Ka-ching!

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Chapter 1. SCORING MONKEY

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1

Scoring Monkey

I

BEGAN TO DOUBT the efficacy of standardized testing in

1994, about four hours into my first day scoring student responses to a state test. At the time I was a 27-year-old slacker/part-time grad student at the University of Iowa, and my friend Greg had referred me to NCS (National Computer

Systems, a test-scoring company in Iowa City) as a good place to get decent-paying and easy work. Soon thereafter, after a perfunctory group interview that entailed no more than flashing my college diploma at an HR rep and penning a short essay about “teamwork” (an essay I’m pretty sure no one read), I had myself a career in “education.”

On my first day, we new employees, as well as dozens of more experienced scorers, met at the company’s rented property on the north side of Iowa City, a warren of tiny rooms filled with computers in the dank downstairs of an abandoned shopping mall. Within 10 minutes of sitting down, the gent sitting next to me—named Hank, a floppy leather hat perched on his head, a pair of leather saddlebags slung across his shoulder—

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