First Lady Michelle Obama revisited a stressful period of her youth on Monday, opening up to teen girls at a Denver mentoring event when asked about her views of standardized testing.
Mrs. Obama used the question to talk about her own insecurities and anxieties about taking tests, focusing on her time as a high school student in Chicago.
It's well known that Mrs. Obama was a high achiever. She went to a top public high school with selective enrollment, then to Princeton, and then to Harvard Law School. However, a continuing theme when she talks about her life is how she had her own struggles to achieve success.
First ladies dipping into their past to make a point is not new. Former First Lady Laura Bush often joked that she was so shy that she made George Bush promise her if he got into politics, she would never have to give a speech. Of course, as the years went by, she grew comfortable behind the podium.
And another former first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, now President Obama's secretary of state, often recalled how her mother gave her permission to beat up a girl who was bullying her in order to toughen her up.
Mrs. Clinton recalls in her memoir, "Living History," that as a 4-year-old she came home crying because a girl was pushing her around. "My mother was afraid that if I gave in to my fears, it would set a pattern for the rest of my life." Her mother ordered her back outside. "And if Suzy hits you, you have my permission to hit her back. You have to stand up for yourself."
Mrs. Obama's mentoring program for girls first started at the White House in March, with a second event there earlier this month. As I reported last week, Mrs. Obama plans to take regular road trips
across the country to encourage more mentoring.
The program in Denver included Mrs. Obama talking with a group of 30 promising girls who were fortunate enough to be selected for the Colorado incarnation of Mrs. Obama's mentoring project. The girls were gathered at the South High School. President Obama's West Wing will be starting a mentoring program for boys sometime in the future.
Mrs. Obama invited questions from the girls; taking questions is something of an event, because she just does not expose herself to the unexpected that often. She's had one press conference since becoming first lady on Jan. 22, and that was Sept. 28, when reporters covering Chicago's 2016 Olympics bid were invited to a press availability in advance of her traveling to Copenhagen to pitch the city's bid. Most of the time when Mrs. Obama does an interview, it is on a subject agreed to in advance: her garden, her work out routine, her marriage, her mentoring program.
The first question at the South High School event was from Linda Jimenez, the student council president and a senior. She asked Mrs. Obama about her views on standardized tests. Given that many students in the school do not speak English, Jimenez said, "they cannot understand the test and they do not do well. I just want to ask, what are your feelings on standardized testing? Is it a fair way to grade high schools and schools all across the country?"
If Mrs. Obama actually took a stab at answering that question, she well could have committed news -- the subject is part of a national debate about educational standards and fairness and bias in standardized tests that favor speakers of standard American English. Mrs. Obama is militant about staying in a news-free zone, if at all possible. So she used the question to pivot to her own traumatic experiences about taking tests.
Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy, in her biography "Michelle," wrote that "Michelle frequently deplores the modern reliance on test scores, describing herself as a person who did not test well." In contrast, Michelle's older brother, Craig, scored high grades without much apparent effort. Mundy quotes Marian Robinson, their mother, on Michelle and testing.
"She was disappointed in herself," Mrs. Robinson has said. "She used to have a little bit of trouble with tests, so she did whatever she had to do to make up for that. I'm sure it was psychological because she was hardworking and she had a brother who could pass a test just by carrying a book under his arm."
In Denver, Mrs. Obama, sidestepping the public policy aspects of testing, obliged Jimenez by talking about her feelings on testing. "I was never a great standardized test taker," she said. "So from a personal level, I would always get nervous and feel a great deal of anxiety over test-taking. So it was always a point of frustration for me personally."
She said didn't even know that there were college test prep courses -- the ones that help drive up ACT and SAT scores -- until she arrived at Princeton.
In terms of her own self-image, she said, "I had to learn not to let just a test score define me." Mrs. Obama then retold the story of how she did not have the test scores to get into Princeton, but she had great grades. (Mundy reports in her book that Mrs. Obama said in a speech during Obama's 2004 Senate race that she ranked 32nd in her high school class.)
"Fortunately for me, Princeton looked at the big picture," taking into account her grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and personal essay. What she did not mention is that she had someone who helped pave the way -- her brother was a star basketball player at Princeton at the time she was applying for admission.
On the matter of test taking, Mrs. Obama -- like her husband, a pragmatist -- did offer some practical advice. "You've got to prepare for the tests, take them seriously because they are part of the measures, they're part of the system. But don't let these tests defeat you. Don't let them define you."
In other words, don't use a flawed system as an excuse not to work hard. Said Mrs. Obama, "You can fight the tests or you can work with it and turn them into an advantage. But ultimately, you've got to be good students."