Tuesday, April 28, 2009

High Stakes Testing

A few years ago, I tried out for Jeopardy. I had taken the online test on a lark, and I guess I did well enough, because they e-mailed me a few weeks later and asked if I'd be interested in a live audition. The contestant search was being held at a hotel about five miles away, so how could I say no? There was a conflict, though. My appointment was the same date and time as my students' annual standardized reading test. Most research shows that students perform better when those tests are administered by teachers they know, and I was concerned about missing it. But, there were no second chances for the Jeopardy audition, and it wasn't that hard to get special permission from the administration of my school to go to the try-outs; in fact, they were kind of impressed that I had one at all.

And so, on a sunny morning in late May, instead of overseeing the sharpening of number two pencils and the bubbling of birth dates, middle initials, and test form numbers, I boarded a subway train bound for destiny-- Ken Jennings, look out. I confess that I was nervous; I had no idea what to expect. I found my way to the hotel, arriving ten minutes early. I joined a crowd of about 30 people milling around the lobby, silently sizing up the competition, or so it seemed to me until their tour guide called to them in German, and they left to board the bus out front. It was only then that I saw the tiny sign with white letters pressed into narrow rows of black felt and a miniature arrow pointing to a marble staircase leading down.

My palm stuck a little on the tarnished brass banister. At the foot of the steps, I saw a line of people waiting outside a plain white door. They really were checking out their opponents-- looking closely at everyone, asking probing questions. Silently, I took my place at the end of the line. As we waited, I overheard that for several people this was their second, or even third, audition. I also found out that most people had to travel a long way to get to this try out. My anxiety hopped up a level or two. Exactly at the appointed hour, the white door swung open and we were called in. I knew that Alex Trebec was in town for another gig, but when I stepped into that basement hotel meeting room, I knew he was nowhere near the place. They took Polaroid pictures of each of us, and then we sat at rows of folding tables facing a collapsible screen like the one my uncle used to show his super-8 movies on.

They gave each of us a Jeopardy logo pen and a pep talk about personality and the importance of constant clicking to be sure you ring in. We took another written test, and this time I wasn't quite as confident as I had been that night several months ago when I sat down and banged out the answers to their 50 questions in about eight minutes. They asked us to provide three personal anecdotes, and I tried to imagine Alex Trebec asking me about mine: "Someone told me that you once cooked a meal for the Queen of England? Tell me about that." There was also the live part of the audition where we competed against two others and we were rated on accuracy and telegenics. When they asked me what I might do with any money I won, I said I wanted to take my nephews to Loch Ness to find the monster, and they seemed to like that, but it was hard to tell.

It was over quickly, and they said that they would be in touch if there was a spot for us. Our names would stay on file for about a year, and if we didn't hear by then, we were welcome to try out again. Back at school the next day, I asked the kids how their test went, and most shrugged. "Who knows?" said one. I nodded, empathetically.


  1. It's interesting that you wrote about this today. I was recently thinking about your Jeopardy experience wondering why I hadn't seen it in your writing somewhere.

  2. So--is there more? I like your serial stories. Having just finished watching Little Dorrit, one of Dickens' serial stories, I'm tuned in--ready to go.