I love taking standardized tests. Publicly declaring my fondness for something that causes most people discomfort and anxiety, and has the potential to trigger life-altering disappointment and even misery, feels a little weird, like gushing over prostate exams or mammograms. But I am what I am, and only by accepting my true nature have I been able to figure out career fulfillment.
Besides, surely I am not the only person in the world who feels happy just holding a cluster of freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils in his fist? Who reads “STOP! Do not go on to the next page!” and feels the same comedown triggered by reaching the end of the “Star Tours” ride at Disney World?
And I am good. Not the best — not even close — but good enough to have some room to maneuver. When I was in high school, taking the SAT for the second time, I noticed in the first hour that the guy sitting next to me, a big football jock I barely even recognized, was plainly looking across to my scoresheet to see what answers I was giving. Being kind of a naive goody-two-shoes at the time, I assumed he would want me to remove temptation, and I adjusted my seating position to block his view with my shoulder. However, at the next break, the gentleman made it clear that would prefer unrestricted access, or else (as he put it), “I will put your head through this concrete wall.”
I liked my head and wanted to keep it, but I was also genuinely incredulous and outraged. I felt it would have been absolutely morally wrong for me to knowingly let him copy my correct answers. At the same time, he had convinced me that any obvious move I made to prevent it, like asking to be moved to a different seat, would lead to my skull being used as an excruciatingly ineffective wrecking ball. Fortunately, I was confident enough in my test-taking abilities to improvise a way out.
I settled into my plastic chair, so that my audience of one had a clear view, and for the next three hours raced through each remaining section of the test. Every fourth or fifth question, though — preferentially those that seemed harder than the others — I intentionally filled in the oval for what I knew was a wrong answer. I also left the faintest possible pencil tick in the oval indicating what I thought was the right answer. Finishing each section several minutes early, I sat back in my chair, as if exhausted. Then, with just a couple of minutes left before time was called, I returned to my answer sheet, skipping randomly around the page and quickly erasing all the wrong answers, replacing them with (hopefully) correct ones. If my extortionist noticed, he must have thought I was just cleaning up stray pencil marks, because he made no apparent effort to copy me and at the end of the day my head remained undamaged.
Did all that extra rigmarole affect my performance on the test? I don’t think so; I got exactly the same score I’d gotten the first time I’d taken the SAT, which was good enough to get me into a decent college. Did it affect my enjoyment of the test? Absolutely! I loved it! Well, I didn’t enjoy the looming threat of physical violence, but everything else about it — the forced creativity, the added time pressure, the very real sense that I was actually matching wits head-to-head with another person — was like adding new rules to make a beloved-but-stale game more interesting. (And yes, I’ll admit that the fact that I “won” — I heard later that the extortionist was disappointed with his results — mattered to me, too.)
So standardized tests were (and still are) a source of pleasure for me, like the New York Times crossword puzzle (which, when you think about it, is also a kind of standardized test). And when I was considering law school and learned that the LSAT was a requirement, I took that as a very positive sign that I was going in the right direction. LSAT scores are supposed to predict law school performance, which is supposed to predict employment performance; so if I did well on the LSAT, I could expect a happy and fruitful career. And I did do well — in fact, I got a perfect score the first time I took the LSAT, when the scale went to 48. However, because I waited a couple of years before actually applying to law school, and in the interim the scale had changed, so that 180 was the top score, my advisor suggested I take the test again. So I did. I got a 180.
My performances on the LSAT were among the forces leading me to believe that law school was my perfect route to success and contentment. After all, LSAT scores are supposed to be predictive, right? And I did do very well in law school, as predicted, and I enjoyed my time as a student. But as a practicing attorney, I neither performed as well, nor enjoyed myself as much.
It took me much longer than it should have to realize that for me, career fulfillment lay on a different path than ordinary law practice. There were many reasons for the tardy recognition, but one of them was certainly the conviction I held for years that the LSAT had proven I was meant to be an attorney. Only gradually did I realize that standardized tests are better at weeding people out than selecting them in. If you can’t perform above a certain level on the LSAT, then you will probably have a difficult time in law school. (Though, I have come to believe, you might still do fine as a lawyer.) But a perfect LSAT score does not mean you would be perfect as a lawyer. It just means that one of the pieces is in place.
We are so used to testing as a tool, and it would be so comforting to believe that, after we provide answers to them, they can provide answers to us. But, at best, maybe they can only help us ask better questions.