Brain on Lockdown: Why Standardized Testing Is As Hard On Teachers As It Is On Students

A couple of weeks ago, I had a dream that I was monitoring a standardized test in my old classroom. The test was TAKS (because my subconscious had forgotten that we’ve moved on to STAAR) and I was being chastised for doing something wrong (I don’t remember what, probably opening a book or staring out the window for eight seconds rather than “actively monitoring” the students). Whatever it was, it was a big problem, and dealing with the person who was berating me was starting to be a giant pain in the butt.

That’s when I remembered that I quit teaching a couple of years ago. I wondered why I was back in my classroom. Did I decide to go back to my old job? Was I just subbing? I racked my brain, trying to find a loophole that would get me out of this situation, but so far nothing was working. Then it came to me.

“I can’t administer this test,” I said to the woman who was still badgering me about the mysterious crime I had committed. “I didn’t go through the training!” That did it. She stopped talking, my heart swelled with victory, and I woke up from my nightmare.

Cartoon Crazy
Image of crazy person tearing her hair out found here.

Because, as anybody who’s anybody knows, you can’t be trusted to administer a standardized test (no matter how many times over how many years you’ve done it) without going through at least one, usually two, sometimes (if you’re lucky and get chosen for a field test) THREE trainings a year on how to do it. The training consists of a power point presentation that tells you not do things such as give a student an answer, hint at an answer, or “act out” an answer. Yes, really.

(Note: If I had a blood pressure machine in my house right now, I could prove to you that, even twenty months after quitting teaching, the very thought of standardized testing still has a profound physical effect on me.)

I found this cartoon here.

There’s a lot of truth to that nightmare I had. Testing is a stressful experience, and not just for the students. Teachers are under a lot of scrutiny during standardized tests, and we’re being scrutinized for really ridiculous things. One year an auditor from either the state or the district (I’m not sure which) came into my room during the test with her official clipboard. She looked around to make sure all educational materials and posters had been taken down or covered up, wiggled the mouse on my computer to make sure it was off, and perused the testing documents on the table at the front of the room. She peered at the state-mandated seating chart and then crooked her finger for me to come over there. I did. She then indicated, with gestures and whispers, that I had neglected to mark where the door to the classroom was on the seating chart. I picked up my pencil and wrote the word “door” in the proper location. She nodded and left.

(Note: The year of the first TAKS Writing test, I actually broke out in the only case of hives I’ve ever had in my life.)

Then there was the time, during my second-to-last year of teaching, when I was unlocking the cabinet after the lunch break to retrieve the tests to hand them back to the students (because they must be under lock and key during breaks), and I managed to break my key off in the lock. I stood there with my back to the students contemplating the paths my life had taken to lead me to this point when I heard a girl’s voice say, “Ms. Juettner, did you just break your key?” Um… And then a boy’s voice say, louder, “Oh my god, are our tests stuck in there?!” UM… Thankfully, a counselor was sent to the rescue (because he had a screwdriver, not because I needed to be counseled, though some therapy later probably would have been a good idea) and soon we were back to our silent and serious testing atmosphere. But it was touch and go for a few minutes there.

(Note: Our school’s system for teacher restroom breaks during testing involved clipping a little red sign to the outside of your door when you needed to be relieved (in order to relieve yourself) and then waiting for a relief person to show up. Sometimes the relief person was already relieving someone else. Sometimes they didn’t see the sign. Sometimes they were reading the newspaper and forgot that teachers’ bladders were about to explode. There is an art to determining when it is exactly fifteen minutes until you are going to have to pee, and I never mastered it.)


Beyond the monotony of the trainings, beyond the stress of following all the rules, beyond the various physical ailments that it causes in otherwise healthy individuals, the absolute WORST thing about standardized testing is the mind-numbing boredom of “actively monitoring” students for five hours a day, up to four days in a row. No grading. No computing. No reading. No writing. No talking. No napping. No making any noise. No telling how long until your next bathroom break. MIND. NUMBING.

One year, a few minutes before testing began, we were all standing in the hallway outside our classrooms, soaking up our last precious moments of freedom, when my friend Julie walked up and said, “Anybody got any problems you need worked out? Any relationship issues? Financial woes? Decisions about what to do with your life?” We all stared at her. She said, “I need something for my brain to work on while I’m in there. Come on, give me a problem to solve!”

I couldn’t supply Julie with a good life problem that day because the biggest thing on my mind at the moment was the same thing. What the heck am I going to do with my brain for the next five hours?

A few days after my recent nightmare, I came across the Love, Teach blog, which I’m now following (and you should too). The first post I saw was “16 Things You Can Do While Actively Monitoring Standardized Testing (Or The Next Time You’re Crazy Bored)” and, let me tell you, she has some GREAT suggestions. You should check them out. Then I’ll round out the list with my four favorite things, making it an even twenty.

human brain don't shake
I found this cool image here.

17. Gamble

Place bets with yourself about which row of students will finish the test first or turn the seating chart into a big bingo board and see how long it takes to get BINGO.

18. Play Matching Games

Since students aren’t allowed to keep anything at their desks during testing, they have to place all of their lunches and silent reading books at the front of the room. My favorite game was trying to match the students to their books and lunches. Since some of them brought multiple books, it was a real challenge.

19. Practice Your Math

If there are twenty-six students in the room, and nine of the students are wearing blue, what percentage of students is wearing blue? (Yes, monitoring standardized testing is so mind-numbing that my brain sometimes CHOSE to do math!)

20. Write Poetry

Technically speaking, you are not allowed to write while monitoring. But the rules do not specifically state that you are not allowed to carry a piece of paper and a pen in your pocket with which to scribble lines of poetry during restroom breaks. I wrote a few poems during my TAAS and TAKS and STAAR monitoring days. Unfortunately, most of them were about monitoring standardized tests. (The whole experience really saps your creativity.) See exhibit A below:

Brain on Lockdown Poem

As we head into yet another testing season, my heart goes out to all of my friends still in the classroom. I wish you interesting internal imaginings, great epiphanies, and absolutely NO highlighter marks on the answer documents. Good luck to you.


[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]

Published by Carie Juettner

Carie Juettner is a former middle school teacher and the author of The Ghostly Tales of New England, The Ghostly Tales of Austin, The Ghostly Tales of Burlington, and The Ghostly Tales of Dallas in the Spooky America series by Arcadia Publishing. Her poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as The Twin Bill, Nature Futures, and Daily Science Fiction. Carie lives in Richardson, Texas, with her husband and pets. She was born on Halloween, and her favorite color is purple.

6 thoughts on “Brain on Lockdown: Why Standardized Testing Is As Hard On Teachers As It Is On Students

  1. I opened this to read it and guess what? It locked down my computer after opening the window. Everything I tried to click on gave me an audible “ding” but no action. L

    1. Oh no! My blog is policing your computer! No technology! No reading! Lock everything down! Lol. It obviously knows you used to be a teacher too and decided to play a prank. Sorry it caused havoc.

  2. Oh my gosh. I am always in absolute AWE that anyone becomes (or stays) a teacher. What an absurd number of hoops. That said, your poem was hilarious! That reminds me so much of one of my own little quirks: I know I’m really stuck when all of my poems are about writing (or not being able to write) poems. I suppose in another life they would become about administering standardized tests too! =)~

    1. I’m glad you liked the poem! That means at least 5 of those brainless hours weren’t completely wasted after all. Whew! 🙂 In many ways, teaching is a wonderful job. I loved it for many years. But the number of hoops we had to jump through and/or keep spinning just multiplied every year. And I’ve never been very good at hula-hooping.

  3. I understand the stress of testing and I only teach first/ second grade. Two years ago I was written up for allowing children to have scratch paper during one of the math sections. Later I argued with the monitor. Don’t we want them to get the right answer? He said that particular section was for mental math and it clearly stated no scratch paper. It did say that so oops. But I still think anytime math is involved, students should be allowed scratch paper.

    1. There are SO many rules! It’s definitely hard to keep them all straight. In 7th grade, for the Writing TAKS, the students could use a dictionary on the composition portion ONLY until they broke the seal on the multiple choice portion. After that, no dictionary was allowed regardless of which section they were working on. Our school used colored stickers on the desk to remind students (and ourselves) when dictionaries were no longer allowed. It was a headache.

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