Follow Your Dream: How I Got Started in K-12 Test Development


Consider that of all of the people I know in K-12 assessment content development, of all the people I know who write the reading passages and questions that appear on tests, not a single one entered this business intentionally. Not one. No one as a child ever looked up from bubbling in circles on a standardized test and said, “I want to write tests when I grow up!” No, not one. Not ever never.

Which isn’t at all surprising, when you think of it, because no one knows who writes these things, anyway.

I entered this world, like many others, through the backdoor of hand-scoring. As with so many things that we long covet, the fantasy gleamed far brighter than the reality.

How I got started in K-12 test development really goes back to my ignorance about how to get a job.

Soon after I graduated from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB with a degree in literature but absolutely no concept of how to find a real job, if by “real” we mean “a job that pays more than minimum wage,” or “a job that requires you to use your brain, not your body,” and after I had already quit a string of crappy jobs (hostessing at Denny’s, which job I quit not because the regulars who got to know me would peer at me curiously and ask why the hell someone like me was working in a place like that and not because my feet hurt so much at the end of my shift that I would sit on the couch and soak them in warm water and cry, but because of how the cooks and busboys would not stop grabbing my *ss–they would also take hold of my hips with both hands and push me out of their way or, worse, pull me toward them, I can’t even explain how shocking and horrible this felt to a girl as inexperienced as I was, and even more horrible that the manager, when I finally mustered up the inner resources to complain–I was at the time crippled by shyness–did nothing but shrug and say that’s just how they were, they didn’t mean anything by it; a part-time gig at a department store in Santa Cruz, a store that had once been fancy but had become a sad little outpost of retail therapy for lost souls where the same customers would come in every single day and eventually after much complimenting (“No, it doesn’t make you look fat!”) buy garments only to return them the next and where my eight-months-pregnant coworker sold weed on her breaks in the parking lot; and a job for which I was ridiculously ill-suited, that of scheduler/clerk at a home health agency where I was supposed to transcribe medical somethings and maintain a database (I didn’t even know what a database was), but my primary responsibility ended up being that of bringing coffee to my boss and listening sympathetically while she tried to make sense of the circumstances that had led to her failed marriage and impending divorce. It was then that I first applied for the temporary job of hand-scoring evaluator that I saw advertised in the classified section of the newspaper.

On a typewriter (it was 1987, few of us had computers at home then) I typed a flimsy little resume that didn’t even fill a page, even though I had been employed since the age of twelve. But was I really going to include those crappy minimum wage (or less) jobs–dishwasher, babysitter, housecleaner, camp cook, cafeteria worker, snack bar cashier, coffee barista–on a resume as part of application for a real job, a job that required a bachelors degree and some tutoring or teaching experience desirable? No, sir, I wasn’t and I didn’t. I did include my brief stint as a tutor for the EOP at UCSB, even though it was so difficult for me to communicate with my charges that I left every tutoring session feeling like a failure and even though that job lasted so little time that I don’t even remember which year of college it was. But on my resume I turned that little shriveled apple into a whole damn pie.

I was desperate. Right around that time was also when I appeared all make-upped and high-heeled before a panel of six interviewers for a minimum-wage secretarial job at the YMCA. I burst into tears after the typing test. They handed me a box of tissues and nodded encouragingly, but there was a recession. They couldn’t hire me even if they wanted to. Jobs were few and applicants were overqualified. Especially in Santa Cruz, where city bus drivers had Ph.Ds.

What I knew how to do: follow directions, cook (all right, but in the most basic manner–think camp food: spaghetti, chili, French toast, meat loaf), clean (more or less, I’ve never been great at it), wash dishes (I could run that Hobart like a boss, I loved that job–turn the radio up and let’s go!), and read. Good Lord, could I read. I read so fast that in my freshman year of college, I signed up to take a speed-reading course, but the instructor sent me home after the pre-test. It would be a waste of money, he said, I read as fast as a person could read without taking such a course, so why bother.

What I could not do: imagine myself working with my mind and not my body. In spite of my grades, test scores, and letters of recommendation from my professors, I simply could not fathom that the possibility existed.

And so for me it didn’t. I didn’t get the job as hand-scoring evaluator. I didn’t even get an interview. Instead, I got a bunch of other crappy jobs in rapid succession (it felt like an eternity in hell at the time): group home counselor. Secretary at an auto repair shop, where the harassment, though daily, was restricted to words, not hands. That was the only job I ever got fired from. My incompetence as a secretary was breathtaking. Also my ignorance of auto repair. I could sit all the livelong day, so my feet didn’t hurt, but I often cried on the way home: because the mechanics made fun of me or asked to see my underwear; because the owner’s wife made comments like “Funny, you went to college and you don’t even know how to load paper into a printer” before launching into a nostalgic eulogy of the last secretary, the incomparable and amazing in every way Lucia who had quit with the blessings of all to go on to a bright future at an auto dealership; because I made mistake after mistake after stupid mistake and every mistake was identified and discussed within earshot by the owner, his wife, and one or more of the mechanics. Getting fired was definitely one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Time marched on. I got a job as a welfare eligibility worker, where my colleagues were exactly whom you’d imagine–drab, sad Eeyores who no matter what their age all seemed to be stuck on fifty and who had completely relinquished any effort to live any semblance of life before retirement; all of them had posters of beaches at their desks and wore disheveled clothes and Birkenstock sandals. Several often buttoned their shirts wrong and wore them like that all day, even after you told them. There was a guy with a combover. Not one person there ever appeared happy. They played the lottery like you’d light candles in church. I didn’t even complete the six (or eight? whatever it was felt like infinity) weeks of training because I jumped ship to become a probation officer. I left probation after three years and became a certified massage therapist–back to working with my body, you see, and then returned to grad school when my doctor told me I was hurting my wrists and I could either do massage or write, but I couldn’t do both. I was finishing a short story collection, so it was good-bye to massage. Once I had completed a year of study for my masters degree, I was sure that I finally had the necessary qualifications to live my dream: this time I would get that temp hand-scoring job if it killed me.

Well, I got an interview this time. Because I’d attended some dumb job-seeking workshop at the EDD and mined the gem that human resources departments weeded out resumes through use of key word scanning software, so I added an objective line to my resume: to obtain a position as a hand-scoring evaluator. Ta da! I’d cleared the first hurdle. Now for the interview.

To which I was late. Because the interview was in Monterey, which area I didn’t know very well, and because of all my great and good gifts and talents, what I am best and brightest at is getting lost. Did I lose myself en route to this interview? Why, yes, I did. Did that cause me so much anxiety that I felt like I was going to throw up? Why, yes, it did. I wanted that job so much.

But it didn’t matter, because my interviewer drove into the parking lot seconds after me. What I did think would matter when I recognized him when he ushered me into his office? That he had been the driver of the car with which I had almost collided in my rush to park. But he politely pretended he didn’t realize that I had in my eagerness to reach the interview nearly plowed into his car.

As interviews go, mine was unremarkable. The interviewer was a few years older than I was, and he spoke briskly and sounded smart. In those days, being smart was about all I had going for me, so I was big on evaluating how smart other people were. Yes, I was immature. In this bare little room–it wasn’t really this guy’s office, just a room with a desk and two chairs and a window overlooking the parking lot–I pretended to act like a grown-up with this guy in a tie who seemed very comfortable being a grown-up. He asked about my tutoring experience. I lied and made it sound bigger than it was. He asked about my experience working as an editor on two literary journals. I lied and made that work seem bigger than it was. He showed me a test question and a rubric and then asked me to give hypothetical scores to some elementary school student responses. I guessed. He said I did well, but he didn’t explain why, and then he told me what day I would start work. I had just turned twenty-nine and I would finish my masters degree in several months, and I had landed my dream temporary job that paid right around ten dollars an hour.

My how I got started post was inspired by this story by Frank Brockmann, who is now blogging under the moniker Accidental Test Developer. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.

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