I recently volunteered to proctor end-of-grade tests at my neighborhood middle school in Chapel Hill. My job was easy: As hall monitor, I simply had to escort children back and forth from emergency bathroom runs. Delighted at the prospect of time away from disruptions, I pulled a student-sized desk into the hall and wrote in my journal without interruption.

But testing wasn’t so great for the kids. Even though I was parked in the hall, I’d been clued into what was going on inside. The students were in for nearly two hours of math testing, with only three short, three-minute breaks. During those breaks, they were allowed to stretch quietly next to their desks. There was to be no noise louder than a calculator click.

It felt unnatural. For two hours, there was not a shout, laugh or locker-door slam. Occasionally, I heard a teacher’s muffled voice issuing clipped directions. To make the situation even eerier, a brooding storm darkened the hall.

It made me pensive. What did these tests mean anyway? You take a child on one day of one year and give a test that’s supposed to sum up what they know? What if that child feels sick, or too shy to get up and go to the bathroom? Or what if she was insulted by another child on the bus that morning? This one morning’s experience was supposed to define a child, the scores engraved in files that follow her until graduation. The test scores on that one arbitrary day might influence teacher pay, initiate a flurry of worried parent calls and be misused by any number of people.

Bells suddenly began to ring, jarring the uncanny silence. A mistake, I mused. But the bells kept on. Seconds later, middle-schoolers shuffled out of the room, were herded against walls and directed to take the tornado-drill position–heads covered, bodies tucked, squished together. They spent 25 minutes that way. Middle-school bodies don’t fold easily; they don’t stay in position well either, and fear made several of the girls break into tears. One student told me he had “the worst wedgie of my life” the entire time.

I had to wonder when they were finally released from these awkward poses, which torture was worse: the test provided by the state or the one furnished by nature?