I recently took a standardized exam.
100 items with multiple choice answers: A,B,C or D.
I passed the exam.
I feel relieved but not proud. I feel as though my special knowledge and understanding in a specific content area has somehow been cheapened by this experience.
I may not say much more about the exam because I signed a form that I would not reveal anything specific about the exam to anyone.
Here’s the thing though: I passed the exam but my understanding has been failed.
In a few weeks apparently I will receive a document or set of documents which will confirm that I am qualified to do what I do. I have provided evidence of the necessary coursework, practical hours and now successful completion of a standardized exam.
Unfortunately, as far as I can gather, the exam is not designed for learning, only qualifying.
I will not see which responses were incorrect. I will not find out which 20 items were excluded from the final result. There will be no opportunity to reflect on whatever knowledge gaps I should try to close. This irritates me substantially. As a learner, I want to find out which items I got wrong. I want to know how I might have misread a question or failed to see what the test authors really intended. I miss the opportunity to become better as a result of having submitted to this particular measuring instrument. In fact, this measuring instrument and its sponsoring organization seem to have no further interest in my learning or growth. On the contrary, the exam is simply a gate tender. Pass and the gate is opened. Fail and the gate remains closed.
So ultimately the exam process is hardly about the content, it’s about the presumed measurement of content awareness (“knowledge” seems too generous here). A number, a score; not the learning, or the effort, or the enduring understanding. 63 or higher (out of 80) constitutes a passing grade. Anything below the cutoff does not. Passing the exam is not about knowing the content well or deeply, it’s about seeming to know enough and indicating awareness of what these particular test authors deem relevant, representative, and necessary to practicing in the field.
I know that I passed. I can see on my results summary that I got a perfect score in one section and less than perfect scores in the other 5 areas. That really isn’t much to go on. And the point is that the system is okay with this. Passing the exam apparently demonstrates that I have enough knowledge of a content area in order to be named “qualified.”
How does “knowing enough” stack up against “knows well” or “understands” or “can apply appropriately”? The results of this exam will offer no indication, nor does the exam (or its authors, or sponsoring organization) actually care. Rather, I have paid the piper with my fair to middling performance and may now dance through the gate of qualification.
If this is my little rant at 50, what must this incredible standardized testing juggernaut be doing to our children who are subjected to such measuring chores throughout their primary and secondary school education, particularly in North America? Our children no doubt understand implicitly that adult organized systems are all about opening and closing gates in order to sort and categorize individuals and groups. They grasp early on the difference between pass and fail, between winning and losing; what it means to move up or be kept back. Even when we assure them that each of them is precious, unique and so much more than a test score, they still know that scores matter and bad scores tend to have bad consequences for the people involved. They also see that many of us adults live in fear when it comes to testing: fear of not complying, fear of not measuring up, of not teaching enough, or of teaching too much, of daring to opt out, or fear of taking all the tests away.
Even if I believe that this was my final standardized exam, the experience stands as a powerful reminder of how limited and potentially limiting high-stakes standardized testing can be. It makes me want to rethink the whole notion of assessment -as a tool to shatter limits rather than reinforce them. What would a worthy assessment of my special skill and content knowledge look like if I wanted to “find out” what would help me break down barriers? I imagine submitting video or audio recordings of my work with clients along with a reflective essay response. And then having a conversation with one or more peer evaluators who offer feedback and for whom I return the favor at a later date. This would be an assessment which is bound up in an ongoing learning process. And note, it is labor intensive, high touch, and based on trust. As a process it would prove challenging to standardize, difficult to scale, yet it would have the potential to deepen practice of the individual who benefits from the support of a community of practitioners.
Developing fresh visions of what could be otherwise proves particularly helpful in this instance. It allows me to provide a sub-optimal professional experience with a greater purpose. I create the learning I was missing and in the process remind myself that I am free to do that. Every. Single. Time. No matter who may be keeping score.