Other than the occasional SAT flashback and that recurring dream that I’ve walked into the exam with only five minutes to complete the entire test, and I’m sitting there in my underwear with no Number 2 pencil, I’ve felt safely removed from standardized testing for many years. That was until last week. 

We’ve written dozens of articles about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in the years since Education Reform. 

We’ve followed how the schools in our towns fared in comparison to other communities and across the state. We’ve looked at how curriculums changed to better prepare students for the tests, and how many seniors might not get a diploma having failed to pass the 10th-grade exam, which became a graduate requirement in 2003. 

We’ve looked at sample questions and wondered whether we’d pass the eighth-grade math portion, having struggled to come up with answers along with befuddled contestants on "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"

We recall all those standardized exams we took as students. At my elementary and junior high school we took the CAT – California Achievement Tests. In high school it was PSATs, SATs, achievement tests, and advanced placement exams all required to get you into college. Then there were GMATs and GREs and LSATs to keep you in college for a few more years and a few more degrees.

But that was a couple decades ago, and thankfully just a distant memory.

Other than the occasional SAT flashback and that recurring dream that I’ve walked into the exam with only five minutes to complete the entire test, and I’m sitting there in my underwear with no Number 2 pencil, I’ve felt safely removed from standardized testing for many years. 

That was until last week. 

I arrived home Monday evening to find the message light aglow on our answering machine. The message from my son’s principal, Mr. Kane, reminded families that MCAS testing was beginning this week and encouraged us to get our students to bed early, give them a nourishing breakfast and keep their stress levels low. 

Christopher, my son, didn’t appear stressed.

But immediately I felt my heart rate going up. I realized all at once that his age of innocence had come to an end in third grade and thought of all the standardized tests he has stretched out front of him. My worry apparent, my 9 year old reassured me thus: “It’s the first MCAS, Mom. How hard could it be?”

“We’ve been practicing at school,” he said and showed me a sample question complete with the multiple choice options and the familiar little circles that must be filled in completely so the computer that scans the test can determine your answer.

“And they’ll give us pencils to take the test,” Christopher said.  

This bit of news came as a great relief, considering my lad can never locate a pencil despite having dozens supplied to him by me, his first-, second- and now third-grade teachers on a nearly weekly basis.

Even with a writing implement in hand, he still needed to know a few things about taking the test. I should remind him to read each one of the questions carefully before filling in his answer, and to watch out for those tricky multiple choice options that appear to be the correct answer but are just a little bit off. 

Then again, going with his gut is good advice too, I thought. The first answer you come up with is often the right one, and by second-guessing yourself you can go very wrong – believe me, I know.

But Christopher’s only query to me made it clear that test-taking tactics weren’t a real concern heading into his first standardized exam.

“By the way, Mom, what ever happened to the Number 1 Pencil?” he wanted to know.

Good question.

Alice Coyle is the managing editor of GateHouse Media New England’s Raynham, Mass., office. She can be reached at acoyle@cnc.com.