The Scantron Test

Sitting in the school carpool, waiting to drop off the kids, I said, “Good luck on the Scantron testing today.” It is Scantron testing week at their school, a time when students are urged to have a good breakfast before school each morning, presumably because that will improve their Scantron test performance.

“Thanks,” said one voice.

“We’re not doing it in first grade,” said the other.

“Scantron tests always bugged me,” I said. “I worried more about whether I was filling in the bubbles correctly than I did about selecting the correct answer.”

“We don’t fill in bubbles,” came the voice from the back.

“What do you mean?”

“The test is on the computer.”

This remark stunned me. I was only the honking of the cars in line behind me that brought me back to my senses. I pulled into the carpool lane, saw the kids off to their classes, and drove on. For the rest of the day, I brooded. How can a test be called a “Scantron” when it is computerized? Isn’t Scantron a portmanteau, combining “scanning” with the ubiquitous “-tron” that gives words a futuristic flavor. You fill in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, and the completed sheets are scanned through a machine, which records the correct and incorrect responses. There is no scanning involved when you take the test on a computer.

The drive back to the house took five minutes. I spent the entire time thinking about words that have lost their original meanings, as well as words that have been replaced by other, lesser words. As I was in the car at the time, I considered how I always liked the word “motorist” better than “driver” and “automobile” better than “car.” It occurred to me that “automobile” could make a comeback when self-driving cars hit the scene with regularity. “Self-driving” is awkward. But what we think of as a self-driving car is truly an automobile.

I prefer “motion picture” or just plain “picture” to “movie.” Movie has a slang feel to it. It is not the Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscar Awards each year. Going to see a picture sounds more glamorous to me than going to see a movie. I still refer to self-contained collections of music as “records” instead of “albums” or “playlists.” I would love to keep “banker’s hours” even though bankers no longer do.

I looked at Scantron’s website, and they are all about the digital age. It looks like they still provide the “Classic” version with the white and green sheets, but I suspect its use has waned. It makes sense that Scantron would keep up with technology changes. What bothers me, I suppose, is that what I know as Scantron no longer exists in the world my kids live in. It is one more sign of the relentless passage of time.

This phenomenon needs a name. What do you call a word that no longer means what it once meant? Probably there is a word for that, too. But what do you call the mechanism by which you see if a word no longer retains its original meaning? I think we should call this the Scantron Test.


  1. Remember to “mouse over” on your touch screen while not “turning the dial on your your television” from your remote control as you turn off the lights without clapping or a switch. I am curious, why does the computer lab still have a pencil sharpener?

    Every word has more than one meaning. Your writing is always very moving, or is it thought provoking, or is it satire, or all three. So glad you are making the time to share your thoughts with us.

  2. Thanks for jogging my memory. I remember those scantron tests in high school. There would be that one joker that would fill in the bubble that said “key” and everyone every one else after would get a 100% on their test.

  3. I like the word “auto” for self-driving cars. It’s short, not commonly used compared to “car,” but understandable, and focuses on the automatic aspect.


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