Thursday, May 14, 2015

Welcome Aboard Big Test Airlines

This week is Big Standardized Test week in Pennsylvania high schools. I have the great good fortune to be a proctor, which means of course that I earned my Super-Secret High Security Test Guardian Certificate. And that means I can't tell you anything about the test itself.

Technically speaking, I'm not even supposed to look at it, though the state seems to recognize that my proctoring duties would be more challenging were I blindfolded. But I am not supposed to retain, remember, in part or in whole, any test items-- not even the general idea of a test item. You might think that the results of unseen test questions to inform instruction might be challenging or impossible or just plain stupid, but that is why you are sitting there reading some silly teacher blog and not making either policy decisions in a capitol or big piles of money in a test manufacturing company.

Yes, we now live in a world where I may well be risking legal penalties for saying that the test includes old-fashioned vocab questions where the student must match a semi-unfamiliar word with its synonym among four other semi-unfamiliar odds. Or that there are interpretation questions with at least three equally correct answers, only one of which will be accepted by the state.

By saying that, I may have said too much. I'm certain that if I tell you more, I have to kill both you and myself.

But I can, as near as I can tell, talk about giving instructions.

BS Test instructions are a unique piece of tone-setting, the classroom equivalent of pre-flight safety instructions on any airline that is not Southwest. These instructions accomplish many goals, none of which are desirable in a classroom.

Right off the bat, the scripting sets a tone. The usual tone (or should I say mood?) of a classroom recognizes that we are all human beings, and that I am an adult human being here to help you manage our next challenge. But the script establishes that I am not here to help you-- in fact, I am not even supposed to interact with you in the same manner as we would any other place in the universe.

Immediately, we are both stripped of agency. You are not to do the simplest action-- not even turn a page-- until I read the instructions to do so. And because I must announce even my simplest action ("I will now pass out pieces of scratch paper"), it is clear I have no agency, either. We are both just subject to a Greater Power-- the Power of the Test.

We then move into a ridiculous dance. I say turn to page two and read the paragraph (the one threatening you with vague, ominous punishment if you dare to violate test security), and you of course do not. Certainly not the fourth time you've been told to read it in two days. Again, we are establishing a tone, delivering a message.

In six modules of testing, you will be told to sign a Code of Test Taker Ethics Pledge (don't cheat or violate security) three times. You will be told to read the section about test security six times. Test security gets a paragraph, all on its own page. Encouragement ("do your best") gets eighteen words over six modules. How many times will we tell you something encouraging, affirming, reminding you of your value as a student and a human being. None times. The allocation of space in the script makes it clear what is most important here, and it's not the students.

I will read the directions out loud as you read them silently just about as much as air travelers read the card in the seat-back pocket. I will ask you repeatedly if you have any questions, but of course by the time we get to those, it's clear that none of us is supposed to say or do anything that's not in the script.

I am supposed to tell you one bald-faced lie-- when looking at the scoring guides, the script makes reference to "professional scorers." That is a lie. There are no such people.

Sometimes I will use vocal inflection or facial expression to indicate that I am, in fact, a live human being and not a Borg-trained flight attendant. I don't know if that makes things better or worse-- is it sadder just to see the bars of a cage, or to see the face of the person shut in behind them?

It is hard to imagine an atmosphere more artificial and offputting. I imagine that for the youngest students it is the saddest, most alienating experience they have ever had. For some very young students I'll bet it is the first time in their lives they've found themselves in a difficult place with no friendly face to be found. When I was little I had nightmares about being lost in a store, unable to find my parents and surrounding by cold, distant strangers. If I were that young today, would I have nightmares about BS Tests instead?

It is all just one more reason that I doubt the validity of the test. Is this really the situation under which we think students will demonstrate their very best? Did test manufacturers stop just short of saying, "What if we left a Slim Whitman album playing full blast the whole time, and every fifteen minutes the proctor had to punch each kid in the face?"

I am not saying that the poor, fragile children need to be coddled through every test. But if I were setting out to discover exactly what my students knew and could do, this is not the first, or even the one thousandth, way I would think of going about it. The direction script is just one more indicator that there are many priorities in play here, and finding out what our students really know is far from the top of the list.


  1. What would happen if I refused to sign the pledge? Would I then not have to proctor since I would not swear to keep it a secret? That sounds pretty good except one of my colleagues would have to pick up the slack. But I can dream.

    1. What if all of your colleagues refused as well?

  2. I used "air quotes" when I read the professional scorers note today. We talked about the real craigslist scorers in class the other day. Very dehumanizing both proctoring and taking the BS Tests.