The biggest first hurdle is that the students have to care. The students have to think that it's really, really important that they give their all for these tests. The whole business makes me wonder if any of these test manufacturers have ever met an actual human, but I suspect that the real problem is that they have themselves so convinced that these tests are really important, valuable measures that it just no longer occurs to them that other people don't see reality in the same way (is there a word for when you gaslight yourself?)
But yesterday's first round reminded me of another issue, more subtle, but equally problematic.
So my student Chris (not the actual name) completes the forty-three questions in roughly ten minutes. This strikes me as improbable. SO I ask Cris, "Did you actually read the questions"
"Sure," Chris says.
"And did you read the selections that the questions went with?"
"No," Chris replies, with a subtext of "why would I do something stupid like that?"
I believe at this point I made That Face.
"What do you mean," Chris elaborates. "I took the test."
Chris was not yanking my chain. Chris believes that the task was completed. Chris and the test manufacturers and I do not share the same definition of the task.
This is not uncommon with instruments like a bubble test which reduce complex operations to a simple job. Teachers and students often have some version of the following conversation:
Teacher: Read the selection through carefully, looking for the main ideas and trying to divine the author's purpose. You should also be on the lookout for key words and phrases. See which key details and evidence support your ideas about main ideas and purpose, and if possible, look for ways to both synthesize the different perspectives included in the excerpt and prepare yourself to compare and contrast the approach to the thematic material in this work with other similarly themed works we've read. Ideally you should read the whole selection through twice so that you can catch the deep structural choices and give yourself a better chance to close read for the role of vocabulary and sentence structure to achieve the author's purpose. Do you understand my expectations for this assessment?
Student: So, you want me to bubble in the right answers for these three questions at the end.
This does not make students unusual examples of the human race. What teacher has not sat through a big high-flying staff meeting about some bold new initiative or state-mandated reform or newly-implemented program and after a few hours of full-blown juice-packed rhetoric said (out loud or to yourself, depending on your bravery), "Yeah, but what do you actually want me to do?"
It is human to translate these kind of full-blown operations down to "Blah blah blah blah blah do Task A." The simpler Task A is, the easier it is to ignore everything in the blah department. And there is nothing simpler than "Click on one of the four options."
You can argue that the students have to read the selection in order to have a better shot at clicking on the "correct" answer, but of course, once again, they first have to care if the answer they click on is correct. On top of that, in the case of crappy standardized tests (with which my juniors have much experience), students have learned that A) you often don't need to read the selection in order to answer the question and B) reading the selection doesn't help them find the correct answer anyway because the question is from crazy alternate universe in which they do not live. And in the cost-benefits analysis of my most struggling students, reading several paragraphs in the hopes that it might give you one more correct click is like plunking down $100 for one ounce of a soup that might not even taste good.
So at the end of the day, many of my students have just defined the task down. Go through forty or so questions, and click on an answer for each one. This supposed to somehow provide me with actionable data.
And at the end of the day, I resent the assessment for more than just the wasted time. I resent it for introducing the idea that sometimes I will ask my students to spend time on pointless things. I promised them at the beginning of the year that I would never purposefully waste their time. Now that promise is suspect.
And sure-- we can argue that as the teacher I'm supposed to do a better job of convincing them that this test is valuable and important and that they need to give it their all because Important Consequences rest on it. That somehow the results of forty-some standardized multiple choice questions will tell me things about them that I could not otherwise figure out for myself. But at the beginning of the year I also promised them I would never lie to them.
Yes, there are life lessons here. Sometimes you are required to perform certain tasks that strike you as pointless because people with more power than you believe that they know better than you what you need. In those situations people can require that you perform a task, but they cannot make you care. They cannot make you do it well. You always get to choose how much commitment you bring to a task.
Most of all, there are lessons here for me as a teacher. One is a reminder about the Rule of Stupid Rules-- if you invest your authority in a silly directive, you weaken your authority in all things. If you require the passengers on your ship wear blue deely-bobbers and sing nursery rhymes whenever they're on deck, you increase the likelihood that they will not pay attention to you when it's time to implement evacuation procedures. And this is also a reminder that we are challenged as teachers to design assessment tasks that cannot be easily defined down so that they don't actually require or measure any of the things we want them to. If a half-assed job actually fulfills the basic requirements of the task, then we have noone to blame but ourselves if a student can say, "What do you mean? I took the test."