Students have boycotted them. Others lose sleep and bite their nails before going to battle armed only with their No. 2 pencils. But some high school students in Massachusetts have turned their anxiety and anger about the state’s high-stakes exams into protest art.
Eleven girls from Brockton High School created an interactive-media exhibit called “This is A Test: A Teen Response to Standardized Testing.” It makes not- so-subtle points about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a set of exams students must pass in mathematics and English in order to graduate, beginning in 2003.
Designed to look like a girl’s bedroom, the exhibit features a bed covered with hundreds of sharpened pencils, while a desk is suspended from the ceiling. Written in red letters on the desk is “Help.” Loudspeakers pipe in student voices asking questions like “My teacher didn’t teach me this; does that mean I’m stupid?”
Different MCAS levels are represented by dresser drawers labeled “warning,” “needs improvement,” or “advanced.” A blackboard asks philosophical questions students would never see on a state test, such as “What is loyalty?” The questions express the students’ view that exams can’t get at the essence of education and learning.
All of the 10th graders who worked on the project passed the MCAS. Younger students involved have not yet taken the exam.
The exhibit is touring local museums. “People have said, ‘We hear you. We feel your anxiety,’ ” said Margaret B. Tittemore, a coordinator at the Fuller Museum in Brockton who helped guide the students as they worked on the project over the summer. “It’s been great. It’s very rare that students have a voice.” Ms. Tittemore said the exhibit has been well-received.
Not everyone was so admiring, however. One written comment left by an unidentified 63-year-old woman described the girls as “lazy” and “whining” about life. It’s not clear whether she used a No. 2 pencil.
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week