Paint by Test Score

Before children enter the formal schooling system they learn to color inside the lines. Their drawings can include a scribble from each of the crayons in the 64-count crayon box, but each splotch of Electric Lime or Atomic Tangerine must be neatly contained in the space provided for each Disney princess’s gown, hair, and crown.

Yet children are prompted to be creative and to explore the possibilities in life; adults encourage them to play the game of “Pretend” but rebuke them when they “tell stories”. Art teachers give children paints, markers and crayons and then tell them to color on a small, rectangular sheet of paper. All through their primary and secondary school lives kids are forced to try and balance a contradiction: creativity and structure. I once knew a girl who almost failed Kindergarten. It’s a funny story to tell because she graduated in the top one percent of my high school class, and all of her friends enjoyed laughing with her through the telling. When she was young her class had been graded on several incredibly important skills, including being able to cut neat lines and paste pieces of paper together without wasting glue.

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Because her gluing technique was faulty for a five-year-old and her straight lines came out diagonal when she tried to cut out squares, my friend almost had to repeat a year of Kindergarten. We laughed extra loud because even if she still hadn’t mastered those skills, her grades were much higher than ours in the important things—English, Science, History, and Math. I share the story about my friend because, truthfully, I have never experienced such troubles. I was very good at playing “the system” and good at school in general. I was the top of my class in Kindergarten, where I prided myself for reading early and writing and illustrating my own picture book.

Throughout elementary school I flew through tests and quizzes, whether they were in English or science or math. I was even proud of the little clay pots I would make in art, and could count to twenty in ten different languages. Multiplication tables were a breeze, and I would read ahead whenever we were studying a book in class. Rather than being scolded for doing too little, I was alternately praised and rebuked for doing too well—working ahead of my classmates and my teacher as I tried to satiate my hunger for knowledge. In short, I was the know-it-all-teacher’s-pet through elementary, middle, and even into high school. Not only could I color well within the lines, but I could shade and color-code the princess’s outfits with their accessories.

I kept my crayons sharpened and my coloring books neat—I was good at everything I knew and I loved going to school every weekday. Because I loved my structure so much, I remember the first day when that affection began to tarnish. It was the day I discovered something I loved more than crayons. It must have been some time around Halloween when I was in seventh grade because I remember our class was writing horror stories. I no longer remember the exact assignment, but I am pretty sure it was something to keep us busy for a day or so.

Most of my classmates wrote two pages on the standard, wide-ruled paper, and were done and presenting in front of the class within an hour. I wrote through all of their stories, filling nine pages in a college-ruled notebook. My heart pounded as I set the scene—my sister and me alone in an old cabin on Halloween. Why not play hide and seek? In the story I rushed upstairs and found a trunk to hide in, only to realize that it was already occupied by a sleeping old man. As I began to shut the lid his eyes popped open. I began to run, screaming.

The stairs grew infinitely long as they descended into a green, fiery hell when the man’s face floated around and around, cackling and screeching as I screamed in terror! In the story I jumped off the couch, wide awake and terrified at the dream, then found comfort in quiet, dull reality. But then the old man appeared in front of me again, cackling in a high-pitched voice as I ran screaming from the cabin. Inside, I wrote, my sister pulled off the mask, puzzled, and yelled at me to come back inside before I got in trouble. All nine pages rattled, my hands shaking as I stood at the podium in front of my class. My heart shuddered and my breath came in quick little gasps.

Adrenaline pulsed through me as they clapped, and I realized that I was in love with writing. Not the five-paragraph essay I had once so dutifully constructed for class assignments and for the AIMS, but the scandalous, wild writing that left me breathless and made me feel like I was there, whether in a shopping mall with a million dollars to spend, on the back of a flying dragon, or stuck in a horror-filled cabin on Halloween. After I had tasted passion, the non-essential effort I normally would have put toward homework or in-class assignments bled away. I did the bare minimum I could get away with, rushing through and trying to be the first student to finish. Quizzes and review packets practically flew away as they reached my desk—fluttering off with chicken scratch all over with their scattered ‘fill-in-the-blank’ questions completed haphazardly with half of the answers illegible. All of my effort from then on was dedicated to art and literature.

I was through with crayons. Instead I found watercolors—the type that bleeds through paper and lines alike without discrimination, staining the table with a sunrise of color. I began to think differently, learn differently, and want differently. I didn’t want to be taught—I wanted to learn. Before my transformation I was encouraged to read a two books titled Dumbing Us Down and The Thomas Jefferson Education.

The former describes the failing education system that that only succeeded in making kids stupider. The latter describes public schooling as a metaphorical conveyer belt. “Gifted” children who try to move forward are pulled back to their place in line, and “special” children who fall back are thrown forward. At the end of the assembly process, students are given a stamp on their head called a Diploma. Is the contemporary schooling system a conveyer belt? No, I don’t believe so. Students can do a paint-by-number of the “Mona Lisa” in the same grade as someone using crayons to color characters from The Lion King.

The issue with modern schooling techniques isn’t that they aren’t challenging students, it’s that they aren’t challenging them in the right areas. In schools—private, charter, public, home, whatever—it’s time to wean students off their crayons and give them water colors. Will it be harder for teachers to interpret the mess many students will make? Yes, it will, so schools should hire more teachers. Will some students feel lost and confused at first? Yes, they will, so mentors should give them guidance. Take the math student’s worksheet and teach her how to ask questions before seeking answers, and take the English student’s essay prompt and tell him to write a novel of his own design. I tried four tries before I succeeded in stepping out of the box holding my creative writing captive.

Inspired to test my boundaries in high school by some like-minded peers and an encouraging mentor, I wrote with abandon. For my first try I wrote five thousand words I would never want to read. In my second I wrote fifty-one thousand words that were all completely cliche. My third explored deeper emotions and a more complex plot, and finally after my fourth try, I held a baby novel in my hands. I spent four years dreaming, and in the fifth year I am experiencing the beginning of intellectual maturity.

I am not suggesting that I am intelligent, or wise, or witty enough to pit my mind against anyone else’s. The maturity I am speaking about regards my self-view. What students lack today is the ability to test themselves, they are instead fed into programs that test their minds by the institution’s standards. My AIMS scores won me a scholarship that pays for almost half of my college expenses. My grades on tests and quizzes throughout my high school career nearly guaranteed my acceptance into a University of growing prestige. My SAT and ACT scores paved the way for me to enter the Honors program of my choice.

I enjoyed using the scores when I was bragging or comparing brain size with friends, but the truth is that I have always been good at tests. Do I deserve to be where I am because of my intellect? My integrity? These are questions I am afraid to pose aloud but ask myself quietly in the back of my mind. The school system placed me in my program by teaching me how to learn the rules of the education game and exploit them for my own benefit, but I will not succeed with only those two skills. I can play the game, but to learn I must involve myself—I must not allow the professor to teach me, but instead take initiative and learn. Test scores are the springboards that propel students into a world where they are asked to think creatively and to paint their own world without lines. If a student is taught to think within preset boundaries they will never reach beyond what they are told and their coloring books will evolve into the three walls of a cubicle where the air is stale and the company sour.

The next stage of human evolution is waiting for the education system to remove the lines and pass out the paintbrushes so the mind can paint innovation and invention in a new, radical array of colors, and push the pen beyond the five-paragraph essay to write novels that will change the world.