Thursday, March 17, 2011

TESTS, Part II: Failing is not Fun

Vickie Bergman blogs about education and parenting at Demand Euphoria.


In my last post, I explained that one thing tests teach you as a student is that you are on your own. This is terrible enough in itself, as it puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on you for no reason, since these kinds of tests rarely pop up in the adult world. But there is another thing that tests might teach you: that there is something terribly wrong with you if you don't do well on them.

The problem is that all through school, many of the tests given in each subject are basically testing the same things over and over again. Memorizing facts or formulas you probably don't care about, for a short period of time. Or writing coherent and well-formed essays about things you probably don't care about, in 45 minutes or less. Or not getting tricked by questions that were specifically designed to trick you.

So how many tests do you have to take before it's pretty obvious how good or bad you are at these things? I wouldn't be surprised if most students who regularly do poorly on tests know when they are going to fail before they even get to school on test days. I think I can understand a little bit how these kids might feel, because there was one kind of test given twice a year in middle school that was a huge problem for me.

Ever hear of the President's Challenge: Physical Fitness Test (PCPFT)? I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about it, even 16 years later. The mile run would have been horrible enough for me on its own (I always came in last), but it was the pull-ups test that afforded me the most humiliation. The worst part of it was that I already knew I couldn't do any pull-ups. If I could have just told the teacher to write down a zero for me, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. But not trying was not an option. I had to take my turn pathetically dangling from the bar, hopelessly trying to cause enough vertical movement to have it considered even "half" of a pull-up, looking out at my classmates and knowing that I was failing. With everyone watching. When the teacher was satisfied that indeed I could not do any pull-ups, I was released from the bar and he would issue me a written reminder that I did zero pull-ups. He must not have realized that the zero was already permanently burned into my mind.

I can imagine this is what the "unfortunate speller" feels like when he gets his spelling test back every week with a written reminder that, yep, he still can't spell big and irrelevant words well. Or what the kid who doesn't understand math feels like when the teacher calls on him to answer a question in class. Guess what? We already know what we are bad at! We don't need the reminders, public or private. The PCPFT didn't motivate me to get better at running or doing pull-ups. I hated both of these activities, so I wasn't about to spend any of my free time trying to get better at them. I just stuck with the guaranteed semi-annual embarrassment. In fact, the only thing the test motivated me to do was to skip school on the testing days if I could possibly do so.

But I know I was lucky. I only ever had to face my dreaded tests a handful of times. The kids who feel this kind of dread over academic tests do not get off that easily. They have to face their failures much more regularly, and it must be awful.

Also, I was all right with the fact that I wasn't athletic because I was "smart." I did well on all the other tests, so at least I had that. How bad it must feel for kids who can't do well on academic tests! I can see why all of the low grades and disappointed adults would add up to these poor kids feeling like they are stupid or lazy. Like there is something wrong with them. But really, they just might not be good at the one thing that it takes to be considered smart in school. They can't memorize information and reproduce it correctly under pressure. Why is this the definition of "smart" anyway?

I am not saying that there shouldn't be any tests in life. But why can't childhood look more like adulthood? As adults, we get to choose which activities to pursue and which tests to take. We get to decide if a test is important enough to be worth the studying and the pressure leading up to it. And most importantly, if we don't want to, we don't have to take the ones we know we would fail.
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