This is the latest entry in my biography series. Here I focus on my first full-time job, scoring standardized tests at Measurement, Inc. in North Carolina.
One activity I participated in during my early struggles in North Carolina was an autism support group. Unlike the autism support group that I attended later in Chattanooga, this was facilitated by a neurotypical person, so the focus was a little different. While some of the purpose of the group was simply to get people with autism out of the house socializing, another focus was on “improving” the life skills of group members and getting them hooked up with resources to find a job, an avenue to go to school, or some way to be productive in the next phase of their lives. As a result of these meetings, I also began giving talks and participating on panels of people with autism where I discussed my story. These were great opportunities for me because people who attended them were able to see that it was possible for people with autism to get college degrees and be at least semi-independent adults. While I only attended a few of these meetings before my graduate school schedule began to conflict with them, I did hold a note in the back of my mind that our counselor, Elizabeth, said. She mentioned that there was a standardized testing company in Durham who would hire people with college degrees who had no work experience, which matched my situation exactly.
For the first year after graduate school, I was at a bit of an impasse. I continued to live at my father’s house, be involved in church activities, and volunteer (mostly working from home) at the digital library. I also searched for jobs, and for the first year was mostly focused on library jobs. Eventually, however, I became desperate enough I was willing to try anything, and remembering what Elizabeth had said, some quick Google searching landed me on Measurement, Inc. I was pleased to see that the company was based in Durham, only about 15 minutes from my dad’s house, so I decided to apply. This was in late October.
After a quick interview and both writing and math skills tests, by the beginning of December, I was told I was hired and there would be work for me beginning the first full week of January. I was very excited. I knew job interviews had been barriers for me in the past, so I was thankful to find a job where the interview was not as important a part of the process as written tests. I was also excited to find a job where I would be out interacting in the community with other people again.
I still remember my first day of work well. After spending the first couple hours filling out preliminary paperwork and learning basic rules, we launched into the training for my first job. Measurement, Inc. standardized test scoring is project-based work. At the beginning of each project, everyone is given training to learn how to score the test they will be scoring for anywhere from the next 2 weeks-3 months. Projects I did while I was there included 1-state projects in Washington and New Jersey which took closer to 2-3 weeks to score, and multi-state projects like ACT and Smarter Balance which could take much longer. My first project, the ACT, was an essay scoring project. I was immediately overwhelmed by the volume of materials we were given. We would be required to score essays on a 1-6 scale on 4 different components, including the overall strength of the student’s argument itself, the way the student developed their argument, the way the student organized their argument, and conventions (grammar, spelling, etc.) The kicker was that we were given several dozen example essays looking at just what the ACT board felt a 1 essay in organization was or a 2 essay in conventions was. I left home after the first day with my brain completely fried. It was also somehow, at 27 years old, the first time I had ever worked a full 8-hour day!
Training was stressful because, after it was over, which generally took about 3 days, we had to take a qualification exam that we had to pass in order to be able to score the project. If you didn’t pass the qualification exam, you were sent home until the next project started, and would only be paid for the 3 days of training and not for the full month of scoring. So there was a lot on the line. In order to qualify to score the test, I had to score 10 “practice” papers that had already been given a “correct” set of scores, and score 80% accurately on at least one attempt out of three. Somehow, I got lucky and scored exactly 80% on my first attempt, so I was able to use the second and third attempts as less stressful practice tests knowing that I had already qualified to score the project and wouldn’t be sent home no matter how poorly I did on the last two tests. By the end, only about 70% of us had qualified. People who had been at Measurement for a long time told us that this was an unusually low percentage and these were especially difficult tests. I still just felt lucky to be there.
Then, the scoring started. I didn’t realize how repetitive a job this would be until we got going. At the beginning of each day, we would log onto the computer and a queue of tests would be waiting for us. We would start scoring, and do nothing but hit “next essay” for the entire rest of the day except for scheduled break times. Any questions we had were usually sent up by computer to our team leader and handled electronically. Because of the monotony of the work, over the course of the time I spent at Measurement I witnessed several people fall asleep on shifts or down 6 Diet Cokes in a shift in an effort to keep going. Just like training, my brain was fried at first. Even though I had passed the qualifying tests, live scoring was difficult to adjust to at first. My team leader was assigned to read behind my work and see if the scores I was giving were accurate, and she sent several papers back over the first few days in an effort to better calibrate my work. Eventually, I got the hang of it, but just when I did, Measurement, Inc. upped the ante. Because so few people had qualified, it was taking longer to score the essays than anticipated, so they began to offer optional Saturday and Sunday shifts as well as an optional 2-hour extension of Monday-Friday. Knowing that I needed money in order to move out on my own, I took as many weekday and Saturday opportunities as I could, though I did skip out on Sundays because church was quite important to me.
After about a month, we finished the ACT and moved immediately into the next project. There, I got to experience what not qualifying was like for the first time, as I failed to qualify for that exam even after three attempts and got sent home. It was a quite frustrating, stressful experience. I knew I had done well on the ACT project. But the Tennessee state writing test offered a completely new set of rules and essays to score, and because I wasn’t able to adequately learn those, suddenly, nothing I had done in the previous month mattered. Thankfully, I was e-mailed literally the night I failed to qualify with a separate opportunity that started in two days. I jumped at the chance. The catch: it was math.
Taking a chance on scoring a math test ended up on being one of the best decisions I ever made at the company, as I found I was quite good at it. The rubrics were simpler, so qualifying to score the tests wasn’t stressful as it was all but a foregone conclusion for me, and I was capable of reading and scoring test responses much faster than my peers, so there was always work for me. People reading this may be wondering how come math can’t be machine-scored. The truth is, these days math standardized tests have many essay questions on them also that do require humans to read them and assess their quality. I enjoyed the diversity of prompts I got to read. I discovered that you didn’t even necessarily have to know how to do the math question in order to score it; you just had to be able to follow the rubric. I scored plenty of responses to geometry and trigonometry questions that I would have been lost if I had actually attempted to do them myself. I continued to alternate between scoring math tests and regular written essay questions for the rest of my time at Measurement depending on what work was available, but I definitely preferred math, a thing I would never expected to say as an English major.
During this time, I felt happy to have found a job that seemed ideal for a person with autism. After all, no social interaction was really required except during training. I was able to be assessed on my sheer ability to read and evaluate essays and not have to worry about any office politics, and this suited me well. I was able to build a few modest friendships, too, because many people congregated in the same break room. After the occasional stress of the first month, it became a comfortable environment for me to get used to working 8-hour days and 40-hour weeks over the course of several months.
I was lucky enough to have fairly steady full-time work from January straight through July, with a brief week and a half in March being the longest stretch of time I had off. I soon discovered the problem with Measurement, however. It was seasonal work, and you were only paid for the time you actually worked on site. During the second half of the year, the company just didn’t have a lot of projects for the seasonal scorers to work on, so you just didn’t come in, which was great if you could afford it but not so great if you still needed money year-round like I did. Still, the 7 months worth of pay I received early in 2015 was 7 more months than I had received in all of 2014, so I was happy with that much. In fact, I had received enough money that I was able to move out on my own. Shortly after moving in October, I received another opportunity at Measurement, Inc. that would push my boundaries even more.