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!)
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 :)
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)