Unathletic: The Problem with Standardized Testing


According to the standardized tests that were used on me physically for gym class in school, I was decidedly unathletic.

I could not do a single pull-up, therefore I lacked upper body strength. I could not run the mile, therefore I lacked endurance. I could not bend my arms past my legs a certain amount, therefore I lacked flexibility. I could not do a very specific test of running back and forth after a target (that required a lot of rapid turning and stopping and starting), therefore I lacked agility.

I took for granted all of these things for a long time, because they were what had been said about me.

Take a look at these photographs.

Kid standing by the ocean

Tell the kid who hiked across a mountain range to the ocean, who could walk as far as she wanted to without getting particularly tired, that she lacks endurance.

Kid standing very high up in a tree

Tell the kid who scrambles rapidly up trees and balances easily on fences and rooftops that she lacks agility and arm strength. (By the way, with regards to arm strength, my father used to lift very heavy weights but could never do a pullup either.)

Kid climbing a tree with legs in a very flexible position

And tell… uh… a kid who can bend her legs into that position, that she’s just not flexible enough. And tell this kid, in general, that she’s unathletic.

I spent years believing that I had no flexibility. I found out later that my arms are so short proportionally that there’s no way a standardized test could measure flexibility that way by standardized means. One of my friends was shocked to hear I thought I was not flexible. She told me that people who are not flexible, cannot step on their own head the way I can.

I spent years believing I had no agility, despite the evidence that when a situation triggers me into action, rather than consciously doing things, I can still do some pretty incredible feats of agility even though the rest of the time I have to use a wheelchair for more conscious movement.

I found these photographs while I was looking for something else (which I’ll post some other time). But I think they prove a really interesting point about how much standardized testing will tell you about a person, physically or cognitively. It’s not that there’d be anything bad about me if they were right, but boy were they ever wrong.

By the way, I got the lowest score possible on the communication section of a standardized test last year. I’ll let my blog speak for itself.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

20 responses »

  1. I was surprised to discover that I am actually good at math, and that sexuality is something that one can actually work on, develop skills around, and derive fulfillment from. Basically, I found out that I am not horrible. I am eager to discover what else I am good at.

  2. I think I’ve spent a good deal of my life telling people that standardized tests of all sorts – physical and academic – say much more about the testee’s ability to take tests, than it does anything else. Fortunately for me, I’m a fabulous test taker, so people actually listen (sometimes). For friends who don’t take tests well, it doesn’t matter how many different ways they can prove they know the material tested, claiming that the test itself is the problem is considered sour grapes, and dismissed. Physical tests seem to be essentially the same thing.

    I started telling people this, the day I found out that a dear friend, and high-level genius, had scored in the double 400’s on his SAT’s. He could think rings around me, but I nearly doubled his scores. Guess who got into the better college? It’s likely that if he hadn’t been the #3 chess player on the East Coast his education would have ended right there.

  3. I really appreciate reading your blog. I have been for several months. Commenting isnt my greatest strength.
    You challenge so many things that people think they can know about a person with standardized testing. That means a great deal to me.
    Ive spent lots of time in mental institutions. All my test scores are low. Ive really only finished like the seventh grade. I really appreciate your courage to speak out about alot of stuff that people just really dont understand. Im trying more than I ever have. If I can figure out how to get past algebra, I may graduate high school by age 45. Im 43 now.
    Thanks, Ed

  4. Amazing. I couldn’t do that kind of hiking at that age, I could climb trees a little, but I’m sure I would have been frustrated trying to get where you were going up the tree. I really do have weak arms and low endurance. I would have passed that one flexibility test, but I don’t think I would ever have tried to do what you were doing there with the tree and the yellow shoes (cool shoes!) I wouldn’t have had the leg strength.

    I was always even more of a social outcast than I was from my inability to socialize because I couldn’t even do athletic stuff well. I took ballet lessons for years and was basically always at the bottom of the class in ability. I’m glad I took the classes, but they didn’t give me normal strength, agility, flexibility and coordination. I know what’s up now, part of the reason why I was so unathletic is because of the Ehlers-Danlos type thing in my family, but that doesn’t explain why Kassiane could be so über athletic and also have EDS… (sure Kassiane make me look bad). :-)

    Anyway, it was rough never being able to do a cartwheel and being the last in any thing on the playground.

  5. I hated those effing tests. They said I was unathletic too (except I DID always come out flexible,) My sophomore year when they told me I had no arm strenght or agility, I’d kind of had enough of it and tipped upside down and did a few handstand pushups, then flipped down into 5 backhandsprings into a backflip. I’m a little shit. I STILL can’t do pullups, my arms lock out.

    Endurance, yeah, they’re on target there for me…but the rest, it was a testing problem. And wow, we have a near identical tree climbing pic of me somewhere (the knee in the armpit).

    Bleh to standardized tests.

  6. There’s so much self-fulfilling prophesy in pronouncements like this. I wasn’t born with an athlete’s body, and I don’t have great vision; pretty early on I was basically excused from gym class as too hopeless to bother with (which was fine, at the time, I got more reading done that way). But then in college, where there was a PE requirement, I found out I’m not so hopeless, really. When someone took the time to teach me, I was able to learn to hit a ball with a bat sometimes. I still wonder how much more physically active I’d be now, if I hadn’t been told in childhood that I wasn’t good at sports.

  7. I have to admit, upper-body strength was not my best area. I was far better with legs than arms. However, it was never the extreme of weakness that they portrayed it as, particularly not during the time period when I was climbing trees all the time.

  8. This is our experience with Charlie: How could he not be unathletic if he goes on 10 miles bike rides and swims laps and in the rough surf in the ocean? He struggles at activities like soccer—-diffiicult to track the ball, too many things to do at once. I much like Kassiane’s point that he is learning fitness skills that will last him lifelong—-and he is getting really strong muscles.

  9. Oh, I hated those tests as well, though in my case the only thing I did really well in was the pull-ups (though they only “made” girls hang there). Which was another funny thing: I could do pull-ups but I wasn’t supposed to be able to because I was a girl.

    Also, I love the picture of you up really high in the tree! It looks wonderful up there. I was also a major tree-climber as a kid, and if I had access to huge trees right now I’d still be better at that than I am at navigating hallways indoors…

  10. I’ve always done very well in every single measure of arm strength except for one; I can’t do a pull-up.

    I can, and frequently do, lift my entire body on my arms. I walk with crutches, and frequently test to see how long I can stay in midair with my feet up (about a minute, mostly because of balance problems). I can do the iron cross in gymnastics, and palm a basketball, two things I was told females can’t do. And I can out arm-wrestle about half the men I meet, and nearly all of the women (I’m female). All of this would suggest good arm strength.

    But I can’t do even one pull-up, no matter what. Which suggests there’s something other than straight-up arm strength being measured.

    Also, would you mind sharing a few more details about the standardized test? What forms of communication did they allow? What other skills did they expect in conjunction? To put it bluntly, what was wrong with the test? Because if they concluded that you can’t communicate, they must be leaving out something major.

  11. Pingback: Autism Vox » Unathletic…….not!

  12. I had the same problems, and the harassment I’d get for it from the teachers. They’d make me hang there for a while “trying” to do that one pull up that I told them was impossible.
    Most of my lifting strength is from my legs, as it’s supposed to be, especially for women. I worked for years, lifting 100+lbs people and stuff.

  13. Our whole history re “athletic tests” was much along the lines of what you describe– we were said to have no endurance, no strength, no flexibility and no eye-hand coordination. In actuality, only the last one is true to any extent, because our depth perception is very bad, but then, we were always good at video games, which people tend to cite as an example of an activity requiring eye-hand coordination. (This is also the problem of subsuming a lot of separate things under the category of “spatial skills,” too. Visualizing something mentally and perceiving the speed or distance of an external object, for instance, are completely different things.)

    In the few chances we *did* have to show off our actual skills, like on nature hikes and so forth, people always expressed amazement at how far we could walk, as the assumption seemed to be that if you can walk, it follows in some linear fashion that running a mile will also be easy for you. Then this would be used as proof that we were supposedly “holding back” from demonstrating our “real skills,” and could actually run, catch balls, be flexible in the way they had defined as flexible, etc, if we “really wanted to” or if we would “just believe we could do it.” Of course, we never could.

    The last time we took a standardized test, we ended up telling the doctor who was administering it (who was an utter, arrogant ass) that it wasn’t fair to time the tests, as it made people anxious and how fast you could do something wasn’t an indication of how *well* you could do it. He replied, “Well, *most people* agree that speed of completion is related to intelligence.” ‘Most people’– who are ‘most people’? Public opinion is not a guide. ‘Most people,’ historically, have believed a lot of things with little relation to the truth.

    …also, it’s interesting how many people will concede that maybe there are *some* people whom standardized tests don’t work on, but then continue to insist that such tests and that concepts of general skill or general intelligence are accurate ways to judge ‘most people.’ (Again with the ‘most people’– I’m starting to wonder who these mythical ‘most people’ actually are. It’s like the .5 child that most families evidently have.)

  14. J: The test took the form of a multiple-choice form filled out by a staff person.

    There would be an item of something I might or might not do, and the staff would have to rate it in one of four ways. For instance:

    1 = Never or rarely
    2 = Sometimes
    3 = Always

    Or something like that.

    And there would be statements like:

    1. Says hello and goodbye appropriately.

    The staff would have to fill in how often I did these things without assistance.

    As it turned out, everything under communication was one of those things I don’t do. Saying hello and goodbye. Using various social niceties. Telling people when something hurts. Etc. Things I just cannot do in realtime.

    Which actually makes sense, since the test was supposed to measure “useful” things as “useful” is defined by various bureaucracies. The academics section of the test was likewise about whether I could apply academic knowledge in real-world settings, not about whether I understood things. (Which was how it should have been, actually, for that test, since the test was about getting into services, meaning about practically applied stuff, not knowledge stuff.)

    But I still find getting the lowest score possible for communication slightly ridiculous.

    In other words, just as my body is not shaped in a way where sticking my legs a foot apart and measuring how far I can move my arms past them would be a reasonable measure of my flexibility, measuring certain parts of communication that I happen to really suck at doesn’t accurately measure my overall communication skills.

  15. I thought it might be something like that. Using a certain specific kind of communication as a measure of your ability to communicate. And I agree. Taking something as broad as communication and judging it entirely by such matters as ability to follow certain social conventions is ridiculous.

  16. My older daughter, Veronica, looks exactly like you (you could be twins) in these photos…but I doubt that she had that agility at that age, at least in terms of what I and her mother had ever witnessed. Which serves to cement the wrong diagnosis you recieved back then.

  17. J wrote:
    But I can’t do even one pull-up, no matter what. Which suggests there’s something other than straight-up arm strength being measured.

    Going by where I remember aching after doing abysmally on that same test, the muscles used in a pull-up are different from the ones I use to lift stuff. – Given that there are only so many ways to safely lift objects, I imagine that’s generally applicable. ..Now I’m going to have to find a horizontal bar somewhere and test that again.

  18. I have no childhood photos. I have practically nothing more than a few years old, because of being institutionalised and made homeless so often and for so long that I regularly had to dump or have taken from me everything I owned. My parents used to have photos of me when I was younger, but my mother threw most of them out so now there are just a couple of school and family photos that I am part of.

    How come you managed to hold onto yours, given all the abuse you’ve been through in institutions and on the streets? Who looks out for your stuff when you’re in meltdowns?

  19. i can identify w/ Tapetum about testing. i flat-out know that i test better than many people more intelligent and/or intellectual than me, in fact i also say “people who can think circles around me”.
    i have an ability to memorize certain things, which has nearly always got me much better grades than those who can’t memorize but when they do learn things they learn them more deeply.

    have to admit that i was placed in ‘remedial’ phys ed class (weightlifting, of all the horrible punishments!) for failing the presidential fitness test in high school.
    i will probably never forgive the gym teachers for letting the great majority of the class (those who passed) play FLOOR HOCKEY during the weeks that we ‘losers’ were in the weight room, floor hockey being the only gym-class sport that was fun for me.
    i suppose the multiple people i would have hit (i was somewhat random at hockey) were grateful, though.

    i have since tried running (that was fun but i don’t think my knees could take it now), kung-fu (a great failure, because i can’t remember the moves fast enough) and would like to try soccer, just because i am sort of a fan and i find it an elegant sport (o jogo bonito). but where can a nearly 34 y/o female who is not any good (yet?) play soccer? there are “old farts'” leagues, but they expect you to be athletic. i can tell from the shape of the person who invited me.

    PS: dig the yellow chuck taylors, Amanda!

  20. tinted: I was institutionalized mostly in childhood, and my parents had the photographs in their possession. I got them after I moved out on my own as an adult. I have not spent much time on the streets (a matter of days), and when I did, I had an unlivable apartment where all my belongings were — I was in a weird position of having to live outside but not truly being homeless. The air in my apartment was unbreathable (due to improper ventilation of concrete and wallboard dust during construction), but it was not damaging to photographs.

    The only things I had with me outside were my communication devices, my wheelchair, and a sleeping bag. People did try to steal my wheelchair at some point while I was sleeping, but backed off and ran away when they realized I had my leg wrapped around it. Plus there were two of us out there, which meant that during the daytime someone could always stand watch. So miraculously nothing of ours got stolen, although I think if we’d have been out there much longer we’d have had to either move locations or we’d have been in real trouble.

    I’ve by no means had the experience of being fully homeless, as in not having a place to store my possessions. Some of my friends have, and you may be confusing me with them.

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