The Test Dream

Though she never seemed to like me much, my high school teacher has allowed me to stay and finish the test far after all of the other students have left. This is especially nice of her considering that I am in her home.

After I’ve guessed the answer to the twelfth and final question, I walk past the porcelain, judgmental eyes of shelved dolls and hand the test to my teacher. I know that I’ve failed. Where was I when she taught this material? Is there a text book for this class?

I go home and search for the class syllabus online only to discover that I am not enrolled in any school.

I wake up.

The “Test Dream”, as it’s called, is a common one. Tony Soprano has it. You’ve probably had your own version. The Test Dream is indicative of insecurity in your waking life. Although mine revolved around taking a math test, a subject with which I have always been notoriously inept, interpretation of the Test Dream focuses less on the subject matter of the test itself and more on the feelings of inadequacy the test evokes.

Living the Dream

Dreams are a mild form of delusion. Delusions are often influenced by the culture surrounding their victim.Take for example, the Truman Show delusion. Named for the 1998 Jim Carrey film in which a man spends his life as the unwitting star of a reality TV series, the Truman Show delusion affects those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sufferers become convinced that they are being filmed. They suspect that major world events are simply plot devices on their show. They demand to meet the director. Though the reality show is a fairly new concept, these symptoms are not. In the 1950’s, when America’s anti-Communist sentiment was at a fever pitch, this same condition led sufferers to believe the FBI was after them.

As a student of New Jersey’s public school system from the mid-1990's through 2010, my education was broken into preparing for and taking standardized tests. I remember studying for the Terra Nova in third grade. I took the GEPA in fourth grade and the HESPA to graduate high school. Each test result was the same. My score in the language arts portion placed me in the 99th percentile of students in my grade. My score in the mathematical portion placed me in the 25th percentile.I remain unsure whether my scores reflected my linguistic prowess and mathematical incompetence or determined them.My vivid memories of preparing for, taking, and receiving the results of these standardized tests speaks volumes about the importance with which they were treated.

For better or worse, I’d always suspected that these tests’ bearing on my future had been exaggerated and approached each exam with my default nonchalance. I recall my mom asking me how I felt taking one of three SATs, required for my application to any four-year college or university.

“What do you mean?,” I’d asked.

“Did you have a sense of anything,?” she’d clarified. (At $75.00 an attempt plus the cost of tutoring, my mom was understandably concerned about my performance on each SAT.)

“I never have a sense of anything,” I’d replied. I laughed because it’s true.

It’s interesting that exams I’d approached with perhaps too much confidence in waking life defeat me in my dreams years later.

Tomorrow Night’s Dream

I realize that my calm in the face of these VERY IMPORTANT exams was atypical. Many students are understandably intimidated by standardized tests and have strong emotional reactions to them. Parents and activists have taken note. As Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Educational Partners, a non-profit for education reform shares:

My daughters were stressed and anxious about the upcoming state test. But here’s the thing: They were first graders at the time, so they didn’t even have to take the test for two more years. We live in a state where the elementary school tests don’t start until third grade and are not consequential for kids anyway (and in practice carry little consequence for the adults, either). So why were my kids freaked out?
It turns out, surprisingly enough, when adults in a school make tests into a big deal — telling kids they really matter, wearing matching shirts for solidarity, holding pep rallies, emphasizing test prep rather than teaching and launching parent-teacher association campaigns to make sure everyone is fortified with enough snacks — the kids pick up on it. A cynic might think it’s a deliberate effort to sour parents on the tests.

Because of criticisms like Rotherham’s, there has recently been a shift in the way academic success is measured. New York’s State Education Department recently announced that statewide exams administered to third through eighth graders will no longer be timed. The shift also applies to higher education. Some 800 of the United Sates’ 3,000 four-year colleges and universities have made ACT and SAT submissions optional.

If academic trends continue in this direction, children of the near future may not be subject to traditional tests. While this may remove a source of stress for many children, they are bound to experience anxiety, if not in childhood, then later in life.This begs the question: will children growing-up in an era with less emphasis on testing experience the Test Dream? If not, what will replace it?

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