The Hunger Games of American Education


by Spencer Gable

Whenever I think of standardized tests and the dozens students need to complete in their educational lifetime, I’m reminded of the insightful lyrics of music artist and rap celebrity Eminem in his song, “Lose Yourself:”

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.

There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.

He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,

But he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down…”

 (Nemesis, Sydney & Doyle par. 2)

While many could conclude that he’s most likely recounting a rap battle of an unfortunate soul, I like to imagine that he’s describing the feelings of a nervous student, sitting among the rows of other students, trying their best to complete the next high-stakes standardized test that’s thrown at them. Even the lyrics about the vomit are relevant; according to the standardized testing webpage on, “test-related jitters, especially among young students, are so common that the Stanford-9 exam comes with instructions on what to do with a test booklet in case a student vomits on it” (“Standardized Tests” par. 6). Why would a test cause a student to become so nervous to the point of feeling nauseous?

The reason why these sheets of paper can cause high stress is because standardized testing can carry with it some very high stakes. When a 100-answer multiple choice bubble sheet is the major determining factor in whether or not they get accepted into their choice college, or even into any college, whether they are able to advance to the next grade or not, or if they’re going to be able to graduate high school, the student filling in those bubbles might be a little more than a little anxious while taking the exam. And it’s not just the students feeling the heat, but schools and faculty as well. Since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, journalist for the Saturday Evening Post Steven Slon explains that schools have been mandated to administer annual math and reading tests to measure academic competence. If a particular school is showing signs of underperformance indicated by their cumulative scores compared to standardized cut-scores, sanctions against that school could follow, or even closure (Slon 48). Fueled by this fear, these schools will allot large fractions of a student’s curriculum to test preparations and ‘teaching to the test.’ This method can be defined by Patte Barth, representative for the Center for Public Education, as the teaching of a narrowed curriculum that panders to only the content of an upcoming test and excludes any other academic material (Barth & Mitchell par. 20). This kind of teaching restrains the development of any student’s creative problem solving skills, and ultimately just produces another professional test-taking individual that has no sense of innovative thought. Celebrated educational lecturer, speaker, and author Sir Ken Robinson helps the reader realize the shortcomings of standardized testing when he tells Slon in an interview, “As a result of standardized testing, even many kids in Ivy League universities can barely think around a corner” (qtd. in Slon 49).

The American College Testing exam, otherwise known as the ACT, was literally my ticket to the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I had taken the test during my junior year of high school and received a composite score of 26 out of a possible 36. While this score was above average, it merely granted me admission to colleges like UNO. With little to no money being saved towards my post-high school education, I was going to need more than an ACT score of 26 in order to attend college without turning to student loans that would prove to be costly in the end.

I tried everything to acquire the tuition money after I was accepted into my choice college UNO. Just about every major scholarship website still has my profile and academic details:,,,, and Filling out all the information for the separate accounts and profiles, applying to all sorts of scholarships and financial aid I was eligible for, and even just waiting to see if I would receive any sort of aid was a taxing process, and proved relatively fruitless when no responses came back from the scholarship organizations. Plans of what the future had for me were flying through my head. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to attend college without acquiring a hefty amount of student debt; what if I took a year off to work and save money for tuition? Could I come across a career that I’m satisfied with that doesn’t require a degree? Will I have to live with my parents for longer than expected or could I support myself? Constant questions about how my post-high school life would end up followed me throughout most of high school until my senior year, when I signed up give the ACT another try.

I was never the best at studying for tests, and that’s why during the night before the exam, I decided to take a practice test for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) exam. Don’t ask why I thought taking a preparation test for the SAT was a good way to prepare for the ACT but it was what was at my disposal at the time. After taking the test I didn’t know what was in store, it was my last chance at getting some sort of substantial financial aid. So when, a couple weeks later, I didn’t know what to expect when my mother gave a slight gasp and left her mouth agape after she checked my ACT composite score. I took a look for myself at my score and a wide grin spread across my face; I managed a composite score of 32, something less than 2% of the ACT test takers would be able to say. A feeling of relief washed over me as I realized what my score really meant: that I would be able to attend UNO with my tuition paid for. And as I sit here and write this entry I can’t help but think how blessed I was to receive that score and that I could have just as easily been denied financial aid or even access to college because of a single standardized test score. But what if it was just luck that I received that score, or that the cram session the night before the test was really what raised my score? Was it because that, much like other standardized tests that the test content was possibly biased or pandered to the knowledge that the typical white middle-class student possesses? Was the score a fluke? These questions can bother me at times, and it gives me little comfort that I am sitting here today writing this because of a single test.

Works Cited

Barth, Patte and Ruth Mitchell. “Standardized tests and their impact on schooling: Q&A.” 16 Feb. Web. 2006. 4 Oct. 2013.

Nemesis, Sydney and Chloe Doyle. “EMINEM LYRICS.” Web. 28 Nov. 2013

Slon, Steven. “Teaching To The Test Gets An ‘F’.” Saturday Evening Post 285.5 (2013): 47-

49. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Standardized Tests” 20 Sep. 2013. Web. 19 Sep. 2013.


15 thoughts on “The Hunger Games of American Education

  1. Even reading your post fills me with envy. Where at first I felt an appreciation for your post, I ended up by the end feeling upset about your outcome when I should have been happy for you. This obviously shows that I agree with your opinion. It is unique someone who got a great score would write and support this side of the proposal. You assume it would be someone like me who wasn’t as “lucky”. I do agree with your proposal nonetheless.

  2. I loved the intro! Especially using “Lose Yourself” to describe how you feel before going into a test. I for one, certainly know that feeling. Great insight to the ACT and how you felt about it. It truly is scary how much a single test can determine your future and livelihood. I have also noticed schools teaching just for standardized tests rather than the knowledge they accumulate. The best courses that I have taken were the ones you had to actually think about rather than spit back out what you were taught.

  3. Great Blog!! I agree with you and your thoughts about the ACT. The fact that ones future depends on one standardized tests gets me every time. I just don’t understand why or how this is how we choose people to receive large amounts of money towards their schooling. Just because one is good at testing doesn’t mean im not as capable as them in school!

  4. Being an Eminem fan myself, I loved that you used his lyrics as your introduction. That definitely caught my attention and made me want to keep reading. As for the blog post, I agree completely! I think that some people just aren’t great test takers and fall under the pressure. I envy that you were able to raise your ACT score up that much. I took the ACT five times and barely raised my score. I hate that our future depends on a piece of paper that defines how smart we are. I believe that intelligence can’t be defined by one test, but by what you do in life.

  5. Love your intro, that was very creative and made me chuckle. Your graphic is also very creative, nice work. As for your blog, I hate standardized tests. I knew a guy in high school that never studied but had the knack for taking tests and always seemed to get lucky and get the highest scores. As for those of us who have to study hours and do a little above average on a test as a result, this is frustrating. Tests such as the SAT and ACT are measures of intelligence but they are also measures of nervousness. This is a disadvantage for many students. I find myself saying “Amen” to a lot of your points in your entry, I could not agree more with your stance. Good luck to you on any future standardized tests!

  6. I definitely feel that standardized testing has its own place in determining how well students are doing in school, and I don’t think it’s a system that can easily be replaced. Colleges need a way to compare students objectively, and things like class rank or GPA just don’t provide that – being #1 in a class of 10 is much less impressive than being #1 in a class of 300, and a 4.0 in a big school might mean less than a small school if the big school has more opportunities for honors classes or AP classes to raise that GPA above a 4.0.

    So would you be opposed to, instead of removing standardized testing entirely, just adding more variety to it? Instead of testing just math, science, English, and reading on the ACT/SAT, add in testing for art, music, computers, etc., things a struggling student in the current four subjects might be able to excel at. You could also do things like portfolios or other non-test examples of work, which could be graded for those who are bad at testing.

    Whether that would be more or less stressful is debatable. On the one hand, it is certainly more tests, more subjects, and more things to prepare for if you want a perfect score. On the other hand, if you know you struggle in one subject, you have the safety net of a subject you excel in to fall back on. It would be like having lots of grades in a class – you have to do more work, sure, but doing badly on one test is a lot better when there is 20 tests vs. just a midterm and a final.

    I think that could work.

    • I agree with you wholeheartedly, standardized testing and its intentions are beneficial, there are just some aspects that could be remedied. I feel that your proposition to ‘widen’ the spectrum of subjects that standardized testing could encompass is a fantastic idea, the only thing I would add to that is to make those tests more optional or something like that, because those subjects may not be able to be taught in all schools and districts, while reading/math/writing/sciences are the student’s core classes already.
      Thanks for the comment, wonderful idea 🙂

  7. This article was impressive, as I can completely relate to it. I have a severe test anxiety, and it pains me every time I have to fill in one of those scary bubbles… It broke my heart when I got a 26 on my ACT as well, as I have struggled to find any scholarships. Being a student with impeccable grades and labeled as highly gifted, I felt my test taking ability showed me to be a student of lower quality who was unable to grasp any concepts. I am hopeful there will be other options in the future to demonstrate my abilities. I also really enjoyed your touch of humor with even ivy league students not being able to think around a corner. I have witnessed “teaching to the test,” on many occasions, and it makes me sad that teachers have to do that instead of teach what’s really important to improve our adult lives.

  8. I agree with you in that tests like the ACT are high stress and could potentially be pointless. When I took mine, I got a 27. Above average like you said, but still wasn’t enough to gain me scholarships. in that case it is really hard to say whether standardized testing really makes sense. But, its really hard to tell what scale the creators of the tests, as well as the distributers of the scholarships, were trying to use and it seems to me that there is really no clear-cut definition of what a good score is. Maybe that is something to think about.

  9. I enjoyed how you began with an Eminem quote, “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.

    There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.

    He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,

    But he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down…”. I also wonder whether or not standardized testing should be the major role in deciding our academic future. One test to account for all upcoming educational activities seems a bit extreme to me. If you used GPA to do so instead it would better reflect the student’s overall achievements. With one small flaw in that argument. Not everyone took the same classes. So even though i hate standardized testing it does serve some purpose. It allows the test giver to rank people based upon merit in a way that alone GPA can not. Reading your paper made me wonder if i could have done better if i would’ve either studied or taken the ACT more then once. I only took it once and got a 27, i was satisfied with that score until i learned that if i would have gotten 4 points higher i could have had my damn school paid for. I liked your paper quite a bit just didn’t like how it made me remember that i probably should’ve studied for and taken that test multiple times.

  10. I loved reading your article! It flowed very well and it had such a great insight on how most students rely on tests to determine their future. It was a sinking feeling for me to know that I could have an almost flawless GPA and be in the top 15% of my class of 550 students, but, the fact that my ACT score didn’t reflect it made it impossible to get the scholarships I desperately needed to get through college without suffering from the crippling debt it seems that everyone inherits. Very well written!

  11. I’ve never been good at taking tests. I wish I could have scored as high as you did. I know that my ACT score does not reflect my intelligence level at all. I didn’t get any scholarships for my score that’s for sure. Good article. Catchy beginning

  12. I loved the start of your article!!! You picked at great topic. I feel like we can all relate to this I as well do not believe that stard test is the way to go. I think that i have always been a smart person but when you put a test in front of me me nervous get the best of me and i start to forget everything that i have learned. I liked that you talked about no child left behind because that is the main reason we have to take all these test in middle and high school.

  13. Great start and interesting title! Your viewpoint is similar to mine. I like how you captivate the audience from the start and kept them reading all the way through.

  14. I really liked your title! I thought it was a very creative approach to tell people about how competitive test scores are in high school and how they can literally determine your future in college.

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