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.


  1. I totally agree with you about the testing. I know that i don't do very well testing but when we are having an in-class discussion I participate and do fine. It just seems that when I am given a certain amount of time and given a grade when I know that I did bad that just ruins my day. Testing for me is so stressful.

  2. I kind of laughed at this post but not in a bad way. I just recall the atrocity which was the physical fitness test. I could not, still can't, touch my toes to save my life. I can't even get close. My dad has the same problem, so it must be genetic. I was the last or nearly the last to finish my mile (thanks to then undiagnosed asthma), and I never have been able to proficiently catch a ball or anything thrown my way- I will miss it probably 75% of the time (thanks to poor vision- 20/800 and 20/350). So these facts and my miserly scores on that PE tests would surely indicate I was some slovenly, morbidly obese, unable-to-move dredge on the system by now. But in fact I am married, have a child, own a home, have a job, and a MA degree. So take that, stupid test. And I am active, as I enjoy hiking and walking and yoga, none of which that test assessed. I just recall every PE day and especially the PE test day were dreaded. It was like a time to publicly humiliate me because I was slow and uncoordinated. I knew I was so why did I have to prove it? Of course, my inability to touch my toes, my parents' education levels, my SAT scores, etc have all been tracked through school and could still exist somewhere, held random by "them" whoever "they" are that collect all this stuff. Anyways I just hate when I see one of my students in the same predicament- knowing they will fail, and feeling terrible about it, and still making them test. I just had two girls take their exit exam and admit to me, "I don't know any of this, what do I do" with a sad look on their face. I did the usual "try your best, process of elimination" but also said "well, you can also always just guess what you don't know.." I felt so terrible.

  3. @Julia, I know how you feel! I really do! Luckily, after school, you don't have to put yourself in that position again if you don't want to. Hang in there!

    @handsinthesoil, I'm glad you could see the humor in it. I can laugh about it now too! Although it was not funny back then, and I really feel for the kids who are going through it now. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  4. '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!'

    You're kinda implying that people who don't do well on academic test are stupid.

    + Failing tests is great when you purposefully do it. I got an F in GCSE history last year because i didn't know any questions, so i decided sleeping through the whole exam would be a better use of my time.

  5. @Ned, Notice "smart" is in quotes. That means it's what people were telling me. I certainly do not believe that people who fail tests in school are stupid.