Some Thoughts on Testing

by stryson

I had friends over to my apartment this weekend, and as this group tends to do, we descended into some discussion of academics. (Why do we end up here every time? Let’s see. The group consisted of a teacher, a former teacher, a computer scientist, a lawyer, two grad students in chemistry at Princeton, and a grad student at NYU. Hello, academia.) Somehow, our conversation veered into talking about multiple-choice tests.  One friend mentioned a teacher who purposely made every answer on a test “A,” to teach the students not to second-guess themselves.  We then all commiserated on the panic that sets in when one is taking a standardized or multiple-choice test and the answers seem to be going in a pattern. As I watched us reminisce as a group, I felt a bit of sadness, knowing that the population I teach most likely will not ever have this same conversation. They still take the tests that we do, but it’s not the same.

What’s different? The biggest difference is that we have a personal interest in it. We care. The kids I teach have equated tests with failure from the time they could read, for the most part. On the whole, they’ve done terribly on tests, and they’ve learned something that many of my peers never did: life goes on if you fail a test. It’s not that big of a deal. The problem, in my eyes, is this: there’s a big difference between “occasional failure is healthy” and “I don’t need to care because it doesn’t matter.” My students, in general, fall into the latter group. This is frustrating on more than one level for me.

First and foremost, I want the kids to care about doing well. I don’t put much of an emphasis on testing, honestly, since I can do a fine job of assessing what the students know from homework and in-class work, but it’s the principle of wanting to strive for success and to see tests as challenges (rather than ordeals just to get through) that I wish I could impress upon them. This actually stretches further than just testing situations; it’s so hard to move them from a “just get it done” mentality into “I want to produce quality work.” This is incredibly tricky, because I also don’t want them to stress out over the tests. It’s such a fine line!

Speaking of straddling a fine line, the sister of the girl I tutor is struggling with a completely opposite problem.  She is in ninth grade and has just recently been diagnosed with dyslexia.  She’s kept up good test scores and good grades by putting in hours upon hours upon hours of work and preparation. She is now ineligible, regardless of diagnosis, for any special considerations or modifications, because failure is required for the district to provide them. However, now that she’s in high school, failure will reflect poorly on her record when she applies to colleges. Why is failure a prerequisite to give a student the help she needs? (The answer is, of course, the almighty dollar. The tests are used (in some school districts) to weed out anyone that they can from any extra services.)

The last concern I have is a selfish one that continues in the policy vein. Public opinion has seemingly come to the conclusion that standardized testing is a good indication of teacher performance. If this stands, teachers are only going to want to have classes full of students like myself and the friends that discussed this with me. Educators are going to shy away from the remedial classes, the special education classes, and so on, because these kids don’t test well. Should my job be determined by an adolescent with no stake in a test other than being done? With all the public hullaballoo, do I want my job to be on the line if a teenager that doesn’t care about testing decides that, because he doesn’t like me, he’ll make geometric figures out of answer bubbles instead of trying? There has to be a better, more comprehensive way to evaluate teacher performance.

What are my conclusions? Tests are flawed and student motivation is generally problematic. I’d like to also conclude with a joke about my friends and I being freaks for caring so much, but honestly, that falls under problematic student motivation in its own way. Why can’t tests just be what they are, instead of causing obsession or resistance?

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