This is Only a Test


NOTE:  The blog below was drafted a few months ago.  At the end of any semester, I usually have brief discussions with students about “test anxiety,” and, while I only have actual teaching experience on which I base anything resembling advice to give to these students, I try to let ease their anxiety by encouraging them to avoid allowing a single test assigning them the incalculable ability to define their individual intelligence.

Today, I had a little time to read THE PALE KING by David Foster Wallace.  In short, he’s describing the differing levels of high school students’ attention to “homework.”  To him then (and to me about fifteen years later in the early ’90s), he observed that one group simply applied themselves hard enough to meet the minimum requirements to satisfy their parents and the teachers.  Wallace  believes he fell into a second category (oftentimes the recipients of peer group labels like “grinds” and “tools”)  primarily because his work was put forth in the spirit of actual learning and not in the spirit of passing.  I too felt this way about my secondary and post-secondary education.  I now must quote the book directly about his perception of his high school peers.

“In Philo [his hometown], educating yourself was something you had to do in spite of school, not because of it–which is basically why so many of my high school peers are still there in Philo even now, selling one another insurance, drinking supermarket alcohol, watching television, awaiting the formality of their first cardiac” (p. 295-6).

I love teaching, but one of m professional struggles centers on the fact that so many of my students seem to be in the first category and not the second.  If there is a formula to create more personal integrity and instill a passion for learning, I have yet to find it.

Finals week for college.  For most, the last week of classes in December or May virtually forces many college students to do some crazy things they’ve never done before.  This includes increasing their caffeine intake to incredibly unhealthy levels, behaving neurotically around their friends and family due to the stress, and studying.  However, taking final exams is a time-honored tradition and probably will never end.  Last year, when a lot of people suddenly subscribed to the fate that awaited us on the Mayan calendar, there were some high school students who probably felt that studying was unnecessary because their test was scheduled after the world was going to explode.  They woke up December 22nd sad, dejected, and frustrated with themselves and the Mayans.

Let’s talk about tests.  No?  Oh, right.  This isn’t interactive.  Allow me to comment on tests.  Tests are meant to measure someone’s comprehension of a topic.  For instance, if I gave you a test over this blog, Question One might be this:

1.  What are tests meant to do?

And, since you’ve read this far, you could probably recall reading something about tests a little bit ago and scan…scan…scan..OH!  THERE IT IS!  be able to answer in probably the same terminology I provided.  Tests are, as we BOTH now succinctly agree, meant to measure someone’s comprehension of a topic.

Fantastic.  I can see by your answer that your native language has not escaped you.  You win as a student.  I win as a teacher.  One of us thanks the other; the other says no no did all the work.

Now what?  If the student continues this behavior over the course of an academic year (August/September through May/June–which, by the way, is NOT they Mayan calendar but rather a common sequence of months adopted over a century ago in order to enable young people to work on family farms during the summer months), then that student is promoted to the next grade level until Grade 12 has been reached.  Why Grade 12?  Well, it stands to reason that most people upon finishing Grade 12 are approximately “legal” and are considered “adults” who are ready for the “real world” (a place filled with employers who, comically,  rarely hire young people due to their “inexperience.”)

So, when these Grade 12 graduates see that the job market for them is rather slim, they (voluntarily?) enroll in the next level of education of college.  These 2-4 years (avg.) typically offer young people more specific courses that will prepare them for life in the “real world” and open up many more employment opportunities.  These years of college are, for many, much more difficult and demanding that the ones recently spent at Grades 11 and 12.  The “homework” load becomes really, really intense.  The expectations are higher.  The food is sensationally better.  The environment usually promotes culture and art and music and entertainment and fun and tomfoolery and teachers who may or may not use “vulgarity” in the classroom.  It’s very very different, but in a few ways it is the same.

And during these years of college, students are regularly required to take (and pass) cumulative semester exams.  The professors and instructors and enormously expensive textbooks have offered boo-coo information.  The classes have been lecture, hands-on, small-group, widely open, incredibly strict, musically accompanied, or some wild mixture of all of the above.  But now, on this day of the exam, students must exhibit a full understanding of some or all of the main concepts provided over the last sixteen weeks.

Upon finishing the exams, students feel one of the following emotions:  complete and utter relief, freedom, satisfaction, or nausea.  The outcome/result of the test may truly affect that individual’s life path.  It could determine whether or not the student is allowed to continue his/her education at that institution.  It could determine the graduation likeliness.  It could determine that the student showed absolutely no sign of learning over the last few months, which contrasts with assignments and quizzes from before (this can lead to a determination that the student “got help” for those assignments and “cheated” on those quizzes.)

But here’s where I’m going with this.  Thanks for sticking around this far, BTW…

Why?  Should a single test really have that much weight to it?  Should any one test ever affect someone so much?  Who in adulthood has anything that means that much to them as a final exam, the SAT or ACT, or some standardized test means to the children and young adults?

Did an expectant mother have to take a test in order to be able to keep her baby?

Did someone out there recently take a test that could enable them to purchase groceries for his/her family?

Was there a test that you took that determined whether or not you would be able to sleep indoors or outdoors tonight?

Tests tests tests tests tests.

It’s insane how much our young people are tested.  It’s overkill.  And it’s killing them.  I truly believe testing–at least the amount that is given to students–is mostly unnecessary.

Would you like to know what your children/students learned?  Ask them.  Did they get it?  If so, great!  If not…try again!

This is a terrible ending point, but I’m nearing 1200 words and there’s little change you finished this anyway.  Thus, it’s back to THE PALE KING for me!

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