Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Standardized Test Marker

 On Twitter lately, in the educational sphere at least, it seems that nothing is as polarizing as the idea of standardized testing. This is especially prevalent among some of the more vocal tweeps in Alberta, the frozen wasteland of a province that I call home. Is vocal the right word? Tweety? You get it.

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!!




  2. Erin,
    I get the sense that many of those railing against standardized tests on Twitter are focusing on selected response (multiple-choice, matching, true-false, ..) tests and not the essays you are grading. Still, your post raises some interesting questions about teachers' role in the "industry." Thanks,

  3. I'm curious...there's lots of talk down south in the US about the amount of time spent marking each test. How long does it take you to mark an exit exam? How does this compare to the amount of time you spend in your own classroom marking tests? Personally, I don't fall into the "I hate multiple choice and love essays" faction...more a member of the "do these tests actually measure something I value" cult.

  4. Great contemplation. I marked diploma exams just enough times to gather insights my students and I needed. I knew when I was done—when the seven straight days of diploma exam marking (!) combined with evenings of my own students' final assessments had run its course. I moved forward, grateful for the ‘semi-inside’ view and for the network. For a window of time, it served its purpose as valuable PD.
    Comments and tweets too often ‘synonymize’ the Canadian and American assessment contexts. This is not the USA. In Alberta, curricular outcomes are explicit; they are outcomes and not standards. In Alberta, professionals craft the learning design (including the pace). In Alberta, the provincial exams are outcome-aligned. They happen every three years, not three (+) times each year.
    As you indicate, exam prep can happen without compromising the richness of ELA. Give me a lit circle any day to build analytical skills. Then go ahead and bring on the old fashioned multi-parapraph essay and/or multiple choice exam! Better yet, bring on a debate or a visual representation. The students who do lit circles can do all of that and much more.
    To be clear, the exam is far from my dream assessment—not even close. Given a magic wand and three quick tweaks, I would:
    1. lower the weighting of the exam
    2. include tasks that engage more strands of language arts—viewing, representing, listening, speaking as well as the traditional reading and writing). Yep, I know this sounds radical to some, but it just seems reasonable to me that an assessment should give a good run at the full scope and philosophical intent of the curriculum (re: front matter).
    3. allow students to springboard from the moment of topic revelation into a collaborative conversation—to think and talk together to get ideas flowing before they show what they know (i.e. similar to the ELA9 provincial exam). I know the arguments against this, but in the “real world” people collaborate...often, as it turns out.
    Alas, my true wish list would be loftier than that, but you get the point.
    As you continue your discernment, keep steering yourself toward the highest good of learners and learning. You’ll know whether and for how long to continue participating. Tap into your inner compass. It will keep the path (interesting and) true. Thank you for sharing your reflections.