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Side Hustle Series: I Write Standardized Test Questions

by J. Money on Thursday, May 17, 2012

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(Guest post by TeacHer as part of our Side Hustle Series)

Ok, by a show of hands: how many of you have taken a standardized test?

Thanks for your participation, you can put your hand down now. How, you ask, did I know it was up? Because almost everyone has taken a standardized test.

These days, most American students are taking several state-issued standardized tests every school year, but even kids who are home-schooled need to take the SAT to get into college. Standardized tests are a necessary evil that we all have to get through, but as you’re cursing the name of the person who invented the damn thing while you’re sweating your way through all that bubbling, did you ever actually think about the person who wrote each of those questions? Probably not.

Lucky for you, you’re about to meet one of those talented writers. That’s right: my side hustle is writing questions for a couple of major standardized tests.

(NOTE: As you can imagine, I had to sign some pretty strict non-disclosure statements when taking this gig. As a result, I can’t tell you who employs me, which tests I write for, or exactly how much I get paid. But that still leaves a lot to say – read on!)

Some Background

I’m a high school teacher living in the D.C. metro area (yep, I’ve met J. Money in real life – I know, you’re jealous!) and I’ve been at it for the past five years. Currently, I teach social studies to a captive audience (ha!) of mostly high school seniors. But I’m also certified to teach 7-12 English. In other words, I have experience and training in a few different areas, one in particular that is especially valuable to the organization that employs me to write the questions. And the thing is, since I’m a teacher, I’m pretty much a professional at being broke, er, I’m pretty much a professional at doing a lot more than just teaching to make money. I’ve tutored, mentored other teachers, written curriculum, taught summer school. I’m always on the look-out for extra income opportunities, particularly those opportunities that will also improve my resume.

Getting the Gig

The way that I got hired to write standardized test questions is pretty straightforward: one of my family members works full time for the organization that hires question writers (in the business, we’re referred to as “item” writers) and they circulated an internal email indicating that they were in need of item writers in a few different subjects. My family member forwarded it to me, I sent in my resume, and the rest was history! I was hired and had my first assignment within the week.

Teacher by Day, Life Ruiner by Night

I have to say, writing test questions is probably my favorite side hustle. Basically, it works like this: my boss sends me an assignment, which is usually pretty specific. She’ll ask for say, 10 questions, and will have a specific topic that each one will need to be about. There are a bunch of rules that I have to follow when writing the questions, in terms of both structuring the questions and topics and phrases that I have to avoid because they might convey ethnic, gender, or regional bias. For example, it’s off limits to write a question that involves a phrase like “slow cooker” because “slow cooker” is a regional term. A test taker in the Midwest might not know that a slow cooker is the same thing as a Crockpot.

Usually, I have about a week or two to complete the assignment, and it takes me an average of about 30 minutes to write each question. I email my set of questions back to my boss a day or two before they’re due, she asks me to edit them if necessary, and that’s it! The flexibility of the gig is great. I can come home from school, eat dinner, open up a bottle of wine, and crank out a few questions before bed. That’s right, your suspicions were correct: people who create standardized tests really are staying up at night, thinking up ways to screw you over!

What Does It Pay?

I write for two different tests, which each pay different rates. The pay is per question, so my pay for a given assignment varies by how many questions were requested. I can’t disclose the exact amount I get paid per question, but the range is between $20-$30 per question, depending on which test I’m writing for.

Whoa! Is This the Perfect Side Hustle or What?!

Writing standardized test questions is a really sweet side hustle and I feel really lucky to have the job. There are two significant drawbacks, though. For one, the work isn’t steady. It ebbs and flows, so I can’t exactly count on the income. The second is a little more cerebral: I sometimes feel like I’m participating in system I don’t agree with, a system that relies on somewhat arbitrary tests (that I help write) to brand teachers (like me) as effective or ineffective without taking other important factors into account. Teaching is an incredibly complex job that simply can’t be boiled down to test scores, and sometimes as I’m writing the questions I feel like I’m helping make my fellow teachers look like they’re idiots when they’re probably not.

This is an unsolvable problem, though. States, universities, and professional programs all rely on standardized tests and someone has to write them. I suppose it’s better that a fellow teacher write the tests than a grumpy bureaucrat who never met a high school student in his life. Still, this is something I think about.

So, You Want To Write Standardized Test Questions…

Again, I can’t reveal the identity of my employer, but if you think you want to write questions for a particular test, do a quick Google search on the test and see who’s responsible for its creation then figure out how to put in an application on their website. You’ll be especially desirable if you have knowledge of a subject area that is somewhat specialized and less frequently studied, like Chinese language or chemistry. The subject I write in for both tests is not one that a lot of people study or know anything about, which is why I got the job so easily.

Regardless of the side hustle you choose, go get one now! It will make a world of difference to your finances. Consider this your homework assignment :)

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This edition of our Side Hustle series was written by TeacHer from www.teacherfinance.org – to learn more about her other side hustles and the ups and downs being “professionally broke,” check out her blog or visit her on Facebook! And to submit your own side hustle you’ve got going on, click here.

(Old school photo by Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M)


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 The Money Mial May 17, 2012 at 8:01 am

@TeacHer : Thast a great side hustle, and one that I have never thought of, altough I do not have the pre requisite for this side hustle, I am trying to think if I can help rivate test makers for finance exams in building test questions. My brain is flowing with juices.

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2 Call Me What You Want Even Cheap May 17, 2012 at 8:32 am

I have written these test and I never once thought about the person that has to write them. What an interesting side hustle and the pay is not bad either. How long does it take you to write one question?

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3 Steve @ Grocery Alerts May 17, 2012 at 11:05 am

I have a friend that writes these for a living where we live for Math and it is a tough gig. You need to have a lot of experience and a great team to work with.

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4 J. Money May 17, 2012 at 11:15 am

That would be AWESOME if they had financial questions on there! Haha… but of course hardly anyone would get them right as it’s not taught much in schools :(

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5 Rachael May 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I remember one of my professors in nursing school helped to write questions for the
NP licensure exam. She said it was really helpful for herself personally with staying fresh with information that she may not use frequently in her career. Personally, I never minded taking standarized tests in school because we would be given snacks on test days.

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6 ImpulseSave May 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

What an interesting side hustle job. I always assumed those tests were written by a group of retired teachers or administrators that just sit in a room all day and think of new ways to make students’ lives impossible! I guess I wasn’t too far off! haha, just kidding, of course. Cool job!

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7 Carol in Mpls May 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm

I just finished a two-month contract for scoring state standardized tests (and did it last year as well). Decent wages for temp work with a college degree required (they even photocopied my diploma for proof). Not sure where our questions, or prompts as they were called, came from, but several really needed work. You had to get in the mindset of that particular grade child to see if if really made sense, and some test results said otherwise. That being said, it was a paycheck, which helps during job search.

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8 Michelle May 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I didn’t know you did this! Very interesting. I’ve never really thought about who made the questions.

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9 Brian May 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Pretty cool side gig. Really enjoyed the write up!

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10 TeacHer May 17, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Thanks for all the great feedback guys! I do really enjoy this side hustle and would highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested!

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11 Bryan at Pinch that Penny! May 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm

It’s funny, I was looking at trying to write questions for the ACT just yesterday. I might have to look a little more seriously.

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12 From Shopping to Saving May 17, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Omg that’s awesome!!! Although I will say this.. I HATE the LSAT writers, but you are much too nice… I don’t think you write LSAT questions haha. I’ve always wanted to know more about people who write test questions, so great post! The pay sounds pretty sweet.

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13 Lance@MoneyLife&More May 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Interesting look into standardized tests. I wonder how much CPA test question makers get paid… I’m hoping my side hustle will pay off but it has a long way to go before I start making any money :)

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14 Kathryn C May 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm

“Teacher by Day, Life Ruiner by Night” …..dying.

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15 J. Money May 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

Thanks again TeacHer! This was a fun and different hustle – appreciate you showing us the behind the scenes :)

@Rachael – HAH! It’s funny how much snacks can make things better ;)
@Carol in Mpls – Cool! It’s interesting how many people are needed from start to finish for all these tests :)
@Bryan at Pinch that Penny! – You were? Like, for a job or for fun??? Haha… crazy odds!
@Kathryn C – That was my favorite line too ;)

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16 Bryan at Pinch that Penny! May 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

J., yeah, I was actually looking at it to apply for a part time job that’s similar to what’s described above. I was reading through a handful of “teacher” blogs, and I read another article advocating the same thing. At least for the ACT, it seemed like they were most interested in current high school teachers, but I don’t know that anybody’s necessarily disqualified.

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17 J. Money May 21, 2012 at 9:59 am

Wow, pretty cool odds we post this up now then, eh? If you end up getting the gig let me know :) It’s def. different!

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18 Olya May 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Haha, man, normal standardized tests tend to be pretty easy (except for that one time when we had a story about a drugged giraffe flying around?! SO strange), but the reading section on the SAT sucked. Those questions are so subjective so I have no idea why there’s supposed to be only one “right” answer.

But this was definitely an interesting perspective on where these things come from… I wonder if any of my teachers write these. Hmmm…

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19 J. Money May 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Haha… Drugged giraffe?? That is AWESOME. And yes, very very strange! :)

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20 Steven Harper Piziks July 16, 2012 at 1:14 am

$20 per question at half an hour per question, plus editing time. And it’s strictly work for hire, meaning the test writer has no rights to the work–no copyrights, no nothing. The author can’t resell the questions elsewhere, or even use them in her own classroom. The pro writers I know (including me) wouldn’t touch that gig, I’m afraid!

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21 Tirath Nagda January 1, 2014 at 2:29 pm

@TeacHer @Stever Harper Piziks can i know the name of the companies you work for?
Thankyou

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