Starting in 4th grade, we began taking standardized tests. These continued every two years in grade school. Then in high school we took first the PSAT test, then the SAT test. Before graduate school we took the GRE test. Before I could teach in Connecticut I had to take the Praxis test. While there are now many courses available to help prepare students for these tests, I had no preparation for any of them. I just sat down and filled out the little answer spaces with my pencil.
But how was I at an advantage even back in 4th grade? I grew up in a white upper middle class home surrounded by books with college educated parents. I was a voracious reader. My parents spoke “Standard English” as it was called then. And the Iowa Test was designed for “Standard English.” I remember finding some of the choices comical, though I had no idea why. For instance was it proper to say “they were” or “they was?” Who would make that “mistake” I wondered. The vocabulary section of the SAT tests was also slanted in my favor. The words to be defined were used all the time in my household and in the books I read. The grammar and usage questions were similarly positioned to my advantage since they were the way people around me spoke.
Remember that I was in school before television was a common source for most children to hear language. Most kids when I was in 4th grade only heard their parents and neighbors speaking. If they heard “ain’t” they had no reason to doubt its correctness. If they hadn’t been surrounded by books, their vocabularies would be much smaller than mine.
It wasn’t until I was grown that I understood the problem with standardized testing. It really separated out kids more by socio-economic reasons than by aptitude or even accomplishment. When I taught “remedial” English to college students I was careful to say that there were many dialects in America. The one called “Standard English” was the one to use in formal writing. I told them that I had had the benefit of learning it growing up. They had the challenge of mastering what was, in essence, a foreign language. I hoped to equip them with this second language since it was still seen as “superior” and the mark of an “educated” person. But I encouraged them to never think their dialect was inferior. If the “standardized” test had been in their dialect, I would have flunked.