Also, maybe polarizing is the wrong word, because no one seems to be on the supportive side of standardized tests. And why should they be? I understand all the reasons against those tests, and I agree with most of them.
And yet, I am a willing participant in standardized testing. And I don't mean in the ubiquitous way, like how all teachers in this province right now who teach grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 know that their students are facing provincial exams at the end the year. I do that too, as responsibly and non-teaching to the test-y as I can. But I do more: I mark diplomas.
This means that for the last 3 years, I've been paid by the government to correct English 30 diplomas, a written exam administered to all grade 12 students at the conclusion of their English 30 course. In Alberta, final exams (referred to as the dread diploma exams) (not really, but it's nice to work in alliteration whenever one can) are worth 50% of the students' final grade, and the exam that I correct is worth 25% of their final grade (the other 25% comes from a 70 question multiple choice exam). The written exam involves writing 2 pieces in 3 hours. Also, students in Alberta must pass their English course to be awarded a high school diploma. It's a pretty textbook definition of high stakes testing. (All this information can be found on the Alberta education website, btw.)
So, twice a year I eagerly- yes, eagerly!- look forward to diploma marking, and have always found the experience thoroughly enjoyable. Who wouldn't love the opportunity to get away from our classrooms to meet with like minded teachers twice a year? We joke about texts, we giggle over innocently misplaced typos, we ruminate on the different effects of a well placed semi-colon. Where else can you get into a lunchtime discussion over the significance of homosexuality in Paul's Case? Or discuss all the possible interpretations of Gertude's character from Hamlet? Or laugh hysterically about that one time you taught Oedipus in class and a student asked point blank: "So are you saying that this guy was literally a mother****er?" Seriously, this is an English teacher geek's dream come true, and I regularly refer to it as the best professional development I get all year.
So there you go: the test markers in Alberta are English teachers. We're not robots. We're not evil. Some of us wear trendy scarves on the marking floor and others wear sweatpants. Some of us live in Edmonton and others drive up (or down) from as far as 5 hours away and spend the weeknights in a hotel room. We take the job very seriously: we're not ignoring the fact that the essay we're correcting belongs to a living, breathing, valuable and creative human being. We care about "our kids". Yet we remain complicit in what so many educators and educational writers consider the greatest evil since something really evil that happened prior to this one. (Yes Taylor Mali, speak with authority, I know).
So, here's what's been nagging at me: when I go mark these exams, am I doing something wrong? Morally, I mean. Or do I mean ethically? Or is that initial question far too simplistic for the situation that education has written itself into? I've come to understand lately that the ultimate defiance of a system involves the rejection of it, but how is that possible as long as I teach grade 12 English in Alberta? Isn't it as useful to learn the rules of the system as well as I can in order to figure out how to work around them?
I don't think the answers to these questions are as simple as yes or no. Or I'm hoping not. Frankly, after reading this article, I'm thankful that I teach in Alberta: at least here we acknowledge the importance of test markers being an expert in what text they are correcting. (If I haven't taught it in the last year, I can't correct it. No essays on Othello for me!)
On one side, I value what I bring back to my students after a marking session; I value the collaboration that these sessions offer; and I value the community of English teachers that I feel quite lucky to be a part of. I fully intend to mark diplomas for as long as they will have me. But on the problem side: I mark test after nameless test, judging the writing ability of these students as if it were the same as thinking ability, punishing them for mistakes made under duress, and knowingly contributing to a grading system that insists on taking the thoughts, ideas and values of my students and using them to produce a neat little bell curve.
My Papa, as he is called, used to have a poster on his classroom wall that asked "Are you part of the solution? Or part of the problem?"
Damn you, rhetorical poster!!