Tuesday, April 8, 2014

From the Archives - The TechCorp Files, Part II: Aptitude Test


This post is Part II of an essentially nonfiction archival tale from 1995.  Click here for the first half of the story (and a discussion of what I mean by “essentially nonfiction”).  This second installment is almost 100% true; only some playful hyperbole (e.g., “my contact lenses took on the shape of potato chips”) and a pseudonym interfere with the veracity of my account.

Where I left off:  I’d finished most of the interview process with “TechCorp,” and was sitting down to begin a written test that would help determine if I had a future with the company.

The TechCorp Files, Part II – June 9, 1995

I knew going in that the test would be multiple choice, and that it would consist only of mathematical and logical problems beyond the scope of my college education in English Literature.  (The informational handout even said, “The verbal/vocabulary skills often included on standardized tests are not part of this exam.”)  I was not, however, prepared for the exact nature of the test.  Perusing the cover of the test booklet, I learned that the test was developed by IBM during the late 1960’s, and was called the “Computer Programming Aptitude Battery Test.”  Something in the title smacked of redundancy, and yet it simultaneously seemed to be missing some words.  I suppose I was looking for “Computer Programming Aptitude Assault and Battery Test.”

Before I began the test, I was given a card to fill out.  It asked for my name, my college major (if any), my gender, and my race.  But … why race?  Suddenly, with this important exam looming before me, I suffered some sort of mental tornado, flinging around issues of intelligence, race, society, Our World, and a lot of other grand notions that had nothing to do with the next letter in the sequence of b a k r m v and so on.  I will now stray from my main subject—the test—to discuss my mental storm, just as it had overtaken my already worried brain.

The first thing I’d read on my application, which I’d filled out on the day of my interview, was a statement about equal opportunity and the total absence of unfair discrimination in the hiring process.  This was normal and expected.  Now, however, I was being asked my race as a part of a Computer Programming Aptitude Battery Test.  These two matters seem unrelated, and should be.  But I couldn’t help trying to connect the dots, having recently read a review of The Bell Curve.  Based on the review, I’d decided that the writers of The Bell Curve were morons, and the fact of them being published writers making money off of scholastically veneered racism made me angry.

(Is it okay to judge a book and its author by a review, without reading the book itself?  Of course!  That’s what reviews are for!  Besides, I’ve judged books on less substantial grounds than that; for example, I decided not to read The Bridges of Madison County after encountering, in an excerpt, this declaration from its hero:  “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.”  No competent writer could pen this, let alone allow it to appear in his finished book.)

My mind—so recently a blank slate on which to scrawl intricate mathematical and alphabetical formulas—had now become overrun with mental static,  such as “Since I’m not applying for a computer programming job, why am I taking this test?” and “Am I even being considered for this job, or are they just gathering data for some examination of intelligence and race?” and “Could this actually all be a psychological experiment?”  The test had not even begun, and already I had my hand up and was asking the receptionist, who was also the proctor, “Ms. Swift, can I please leave the room?  My brain is full.”

No, I didn’t actually ask her that.  It’s from a cartoon.  But just once I’d like to be able to use that line in an actual classroom situation.  Instead, I pondered the legal and societal implications of what I should write down on the form for “race.”  I toyed with the idea of writing “white,” but decided nobody would want to hire a wise guy.  (Smart, yes.  Wise, no.)  Then I began to really sweat:  what am I?  What could I put?  “European ancestry”?

Obviously, it occurred to me to put “Caucasian,” but given the climate of the exam—IF YOU DO POORLY ON THIS TEST, YOU WILL HAVE NO FUTURE!—I suddenly began to doubt myself.  Caucasian?  What is that, anyway?  It ends in “-asian,” but I’m not Asian.  What does “Caucasian” mean?  Does it mean my ancestors came down from the Caucus mountains?  Where are the Caucus mountains?  Aren’t they in, like, Russia?  I knew I should have learned my world geography better!  Finally I wrote “Caucasian,” with trepidation, feeling like I was already just guessing, and yet the test hadn’t even begun.

It got worse from there.  Ms. Swift handed me the Scantron form, and it was the most confusing thing I’d ever seen.  The sets of choices (A,B,C,D,E, with little boxes) weren’t even numbered.  And, instead of boxes running from left to right, and from top to bottom, they ran in every direction possible.  There were numbers, but only sprinkled in here and there.  Apparently at certain points during the exam you were supposed to rotate your answer sheet 90 degrees.  I hadn’t even opened the test booklet, and I was already lost.  Finally Ms. Swift showed me how to insert the answer sheet into the back of the book, and slide out a little sliver of it at a time, to line up with the questions in the book.  It was a little like using a Secret Decoder Ring.

The first section of the test was not a surprise to me, for I fully expected the dizzying array of convoluted algebra problems.  Unfortunately, the choices of solutions to the problems were not in the format I would have used.  When pressed for time, I prefer to compute things in my head, completing steps without the use of scratch paper.  Of course, this process only yields answers, whereas the test’s choices of solutions were only partial setups—that is, first steps—for solving the problems.

And the setups were monstrous, from my point of view.  The algebraic formulations suggested as answers simply didn’t look like the ones I would have used.  Matter of fact, they looked downright ugly.  I came to realize that I have always organized my algebraic formulas according to subconscious artistic principles, the violation of which was now confounding me.  To my horror I ran out of time with many problems totally unexplored.  I had thought I would have more time.  Could there have been a mistake?

Perhaps, perhaps not.  Perhaps the entire exam was simply a means to forever rid TechCorp of me and my hopes of employment.  Perhaps this test was a trap, a setup.  Maybe my failing score would be the preamble to my rejection letter.  After all, hadn’t the woman interviewing me looked me right in the eye at one point and said, “I don’t like you, Albert.  I don’t like you at all”?  (Well, she actually hadn’t, but she’d sure given me that impression.)

But now the “Reasoning” section of the exam was over, and I was on to the dreaded “Letter Series” section.  It was barbaric.  The letters danced in my head.  Within minutes, I had actually become dyslexic, if not aphasic.  Then I had my first migraine.  The letters blurred before my eyes.  It dawned on me, subconsciously (since my entire consciousness was in overdrive, contemplating how the alternate letters in the first part of the series might actually repeat themselves in reverse in the last part of the series), that these letter series problems were in fact much harder than the example given in the intro/warning literature I’d been given.

My mind began the equivalent of a jazz solo.  My soul, as though praying, sought out a muse, some kind of divine infusion of insight.  My testicles shriveled into hard, dry acorns.  My neck became a piece of coat-hanger wire that has been bent back and forth, back and forth.  My hands sweated, turning the plastic Choice #2 pencil into a slick, warm stalk of asparagus.  My contact lenses took on the shape of potato chips: first Lays, then Ruffles.  A tuneless rhythm beat in my head, like the tattoo of a racing hard drive.

All at once, this section too was over.  The day before, my interviewer had advised me to guess on all the remaining problems when my time was up, since I would have a 25% chance of getting each problem right (which, she insinuated, was about the extent of my chances anyway).  However, Ms. Swift proved to be a merciless taskmaster, refusing to give me an extra ten seconds to fire at random.  Besides, the answer sheet was so complicated this wouldn’t have worked anyway.

The next section was “Number Ability.”  This was basically just arithmetic with either very large or very small numbers; a typical problem had two things multiplied together, and this product divided by a third number.  The idea is that even using a calculator you would scarcely have enough time to finish the test (you had, in fact, less than 13 seconds per problem).  The trick was to notice that pairs of numbers, if rounded off, had special relationships lending themselves well to shortcuts.  If you took the right shortcuts, and had a knack for estimating your degree of error, you could reach an answer that would be fairly close to the choices given in the test booklet.

The idea of certain numbers having special relationships to each other was not new to me.  My ninth-grade math teacher was particularly keen on these kinds of things, and had trained me well.  Still, I resented myself for having never memorized all the tables of logarithms in the back of my math book, along with the methods for using these logarithms to great benefit in such computations.  Still, I actually finished the section.  This immediately struck me as the crowning achievement of my lifetime.

The last section of the exam had not been exemplified in my test warning handout.  It was called “diagramming” and involved computer-program-style flow charts.  An example problem is that a grain factory needs to produce a certain amount of grain, in a certain mixture and at a certain level of quality.  Many factors can vary the quality:  temperature, pressure, and accidental variances in the composition of the grain.  There are all kinds of scenarios involved, with all kinds of “if-then” statements conveyed by arrows and cells and things, and basically it was about the most complicated hypothetical scenario I’ve ever bothered to contemplate.  Certain cells had question in them (e.g., “Does the sample meet minimum standards?”) or an instruction (“Add more grain”) but others simply had numbers.  My job was to choose the question or instruction that belongs where the number is, so that the flow chart would make sense, and would provide a solution to the problem.  Each flow chart had 7 or 8 missing cells, and if you didn’t understand the overall flow, you were hopeless.  It was a lot like solving a murder mystery, but one that required collection of clues prior to the murder.  What made the test devilishly tricky was that in some cases, I couldn’t possibly fill in cell 1 until I’d figured out the proper input for cell 5.  Until I realized this bit of trickery, I was really stuck.

However, the frantic pace had taken a hold on me.  My brain cells, as impotent individually as steers, now stampeded en masse.  All my neurons were firing in unison.  Nothing could stop me from figuring out answers.  Perhaps not correct answers, but answers nonetheless.  I probably could have provided, in short order, some kind of answer to almost any question at all.  So accelerated were my thought processes, I probably could have even wrested some meaning out of an e.e. cummings poem.  Uncannily, I finished the test before Ms. Swift could even come to thwart me again.

And now I realized I had been in that office for an hour and a half, and was therefore an hour and a half late for my regular job:  a job which is not only within my abilities, but which pays me real money for my efforts.  A good job, I reflected.  A job which could easily come to an end if anybody bothered to scrutinize my elaborate excuses for missing work.

I left my answer sheet on Ms. Swift’s desk.  She was nowhere to be seen.  I wandered, lost, out into the lobby.  I found somebody.  “I’m done with my aptitude battery test,” I told this random person.
oooooo“You’re what?  Did you say ‘done?’”  She acted as if I’d said, “I’m menstruating.”  The word “done” didn’t seem to click.
 oooooo“Yes.  Ms. Swift never came and stopped me.  I guess she’s waiting until my time is up.”  I was beginning to realize the wild improbability of my situation.
 oooooo“Well . . . don’t you think you should go back and maybe, uh, check your answers?”
 oooooo“Oh, no.  There’s no point in that,” I said.  I almost said, “there’s no hope,” but stopped myself.  “I wouldn’t have enough time to go over anything,” I said.  “It’s over.”

I was dismissed, and I staggered outside, into the sunlight, blinking and squinting.  The world was still going on.  None of the people on the street had any idea what kind of intellectual butchery had just been done at my hands.  For all they knew, I was possessed of a fully functional mind.  I walked down the street towards work, trying hard to reconstruct some fragment of self esteem.  I’m still a good person, I reasoned.  I’ve never committed a felony.  I’ve never drowned a kitten.

And I could pass the drug test, anyway.

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