Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is There Gonna Be a Test On This?

We in education have basically admitted defeat on Standardized Testing. It's something that (otherwise) liberal Democrats will pander to Republicans on. It's something that (otherwise) reasonable superintendents will lament but won't attack in their (otherwise) very moving and motivational opening-day speeches. Standardized Tests are used to determine teacher quality, school funding , and student futures--even in cases where they are poorly constructed (see also the PSSA) or serve to enrich powerful corporations (see also ETS and the College Board) with public money. Many educators don't like Standardized Testing, but concede that it's here to stay, and that we'll all just need to learn to deal with it.

Did you know that Pennsylvania produces a re-test booklet and a ream of paperwork for every student who scored Basic or Below Basic on the PSSA? That's fine. Did you know that they ship these books to each school and mandate that students have the opportunity to re-take the test? Still fine. Did you know that re-taking the test counts for nothing? Nothing. How a student does on the re-test means nothing for the students, the school, anything--the only educational impact is the loss of another three days of school spent taking the PSSA. Pennsylvania is in a continual budget crisis. Shocking.

Little freak-outs like that notwithstanding, as a Slacker I kinda loved Standardized Tests. Show me a test I can't study for, and I'll show you a level playing field. Observe:

Preparation for school tests (non-Slacker version):
  • read material
  • take notes
  • form study group
  • develop practice test
  • re-read material
  • study notes
  • find tutor
  • pull all-night'r studying
  • cram material on bus and before first period
  • fix wrong answers on corrected test for extra-credit
Preparation for school tests (Slacker version):
  • uhm...preparation?
Preparation for Standardized Tests (non-Slacker version):
  • get a good night's sleep
  • eat a good breakfast
  • bring a pencil (or one will be provided for you)
  • ditto a calculator (or, you know...)
  • don't sweat the questions you don't know
  • don't guess entirely at random
  • go home and wait for scores
  • take it again, and your score will probably go up
Preparation for Standardized Tests (Slacker version):
  • adaptations declined
Standardized Tests are changing and expanding, however and unfortunately some of their changes will lessen our Slacker advantage. "SAT" stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test, yet they're trying to make it more achievement-based with the introduction of Algebra II--known in the industry as "the stuff you can't just think your way through". Final exams are also becoming more standardized (see also Keystone Exams and Regents). Soon, the psychological profiling of your teachers that you've been doing to determine the content of your finals may not be worth the empty out-the-window-gazing you've put into it.

In music, we also have a form of Standardized Testing--called auditions. It's a process by which a person's entire estimated value to a program or ensemble is allegedly predicted by a single performance of some bit of music or set of tasks. Often the people hearing the audition have been doing so all day (or evening, or semester...) and are finding it harder to care. Even when one does manage to care the entire time, at some point you start to face thoughts like "Well, I like that tone, but is it good tone? Is it "8" tone, or more of a "'7". What did I give that kid three hours ago, the one with the strange glasses?" Students' self-worth, and sometimes entire future, can ride on these auditions, and the judges may be spending 65% of their concentration on trying to look interested but non-judgmental. There must be a way to exploit this fact as well, and when I figure it out you'll read about it here.

Since this is a Slacker's Guide, and not just a guide for slackers, here are a few tidbits on test-taking that even non-Slacker types can borrow:
  1. Read the question - Everyone thinks they do this, but if you grade a lot of stuff you find out that they don't. I recommend you spend as much time on reading the question as you usually do to answer. Teachers know that little one-word sentences like "Why?", "Explain.", "Agree?" Disagree?" and "Twice." can double the length of the answer with almost no effort on the part of the questioner.
  2. Mine the test - it's rather difficult to construct a test without providing some of the answers in another portion of the test. Some teachers won't even try, assuming you just won't figure it out.
  3. Answer every question - not true on the SAT, but in most testing situations there is no penalty for guessing. Multiple choice questions are obvious opportunities, and if you ever left a true-false question blank, please just stop reading right now. Still, take a crack at the essays too. In fact, if you can quote your teacher from something that may have been a pointless rant at the time, you may earn credit you don't deserve.
  4. Know your adversary - Teachers are biased. I don't mean that you got a D- because Mr. Rouche hates you--you got a D- because of the wrong answers. Besides, teachers tend to do grading with computers now, so exerting that kind of bias would be more work than its worth. What I mean is that teachers' tests are an expression of their values. You already know what's on the test if you think back to what the teacher seemed particularly animated about when they first presented it. Make an asterisk in your notes--okay, you don't have notes. Make an asterisk on your forehead whenever a teacher seems to really care about something. If they care about it, you should too..for a little while at least.
  5. Hoard - If you're lucky enough to have a teacher who hands back tests and quizzes and doesn't expect them back, hoard them. I know managing paperwork is not really our gift, but line the bottom of your locker with this stuff for now and sort it out later. Teachers re-use questions, and when they don't they tend to ask the same stuff in a different way. If you can look through an old quiz and know all the answers, you're ready for the test. When you can deal with all of the test questions, bring on the exam.
There should really be ten of those, I guess--like commandments. Check back, and I'll add to it as I think of things.

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