As an adjunct instructor of English at One College In Particular, I am required this semester, thanks to a new program, to send my students to the testing center to take exams that are written by people who never met the students in my class and who don’t know my students or what I am teaching them. Other tests, I am to give in class myself.
Yes, this is the state of American higher education now: a low-wage teacher (but one with a lot of letters behind her name) is hired to teach a class. But she must automatically, and without question, agree to give up several class sessions to examinations. This semester, I was told when to give students various tests and what kind of tests they would be. I was also told that, if students did not pass this one REALLY important test, they could not pass the course at all, regardless of how they performed in, you know, the course.
The problem is that the three required tests have nothing whatever to do with my course (well, they are supposed to take 3, but I am only giving them 2 because I can get away with it). These are tests that I did not design, and I only find out if each student passed or failed. I get no additional information.
When testing day comes around – or even the horrid “test prep” day, another deadly beast – it is like a very small, but ear-piercingly loud air raid siren goes off in the classroom. We all know that the bombs – sheets of paper covered in questions with lists of potential answers – are going to start dropping onto students’ desks with all the precision and accompanying terror of Luftwaffe parachuters. The students will pick up their pencils with nervous, clammy fingers, and they will be assessed. All the contingency and happy accidents in the universe – all the dappled things – will be swept away or stuffed into the desk drawers out of sight in preparation for the arrival of the correct answers, which will at that moment assume a great importance in the world.
Just to be clear: It is not the idea of assessment that I find so abhorrent. On the contrary, I assess my students’ work all the time. I read papers – sometimes multiple drafts – and provide comments targeted to each individual student. That is the kind of activity that I always thought was meant by the term “assessment.” At the very least, if OCIP would like to know how the students enrolled in my course are performing in my course, I would think they would ask the person they hired to teach it! But that seems too sensible.
Standard definitions of words also turn out to be too sensible in the midst of testing mania. I find that “assessment,” for example, has come to mean something I cannot quite define except to say that it means whatever Bill Gates says. No, I am not joking. I have a game that I play in my own head each time I either read an article in the newspaper that discusses testing or demonstrates a new kind of test that is supposedly able to do whatever it is tests do better than the previous tests did.
I also play the same game in my head when I am at OCIP flipping through actual test booklets and test-related material. The game is this: if you read the fine print long enough (and maybe add in some Googling), you can almost always trace every test back to a billionaire, like the guy from the Walton family or the Lumina Foundation. Both of them pay for a lot of students to take a lot of tests. Usually, however, you can trace tests, test rationales, and testing materials to Bill Gates or his foundation. He’s involved, somehow, in everything. It is simply a fact that, once you’ve accepted your place on the Monopoly Board of life, there is no way around him. Bill Gates is the Jesus Christ of American Education/Tests.
The most troubling thing of all is not that Bill Gates hangs over my classroom like a disappointed parent. It’s that my students’ performance on these tests – not their grade in my class – determines whether they will pass my course.
And this all seems perfectly logical to the administrators, at least to those who entertain my questions about the abundance of tests. Most of them don’t know why I’m even complaining. After all, I’m a lowly adjunct, and what do I care?
I tried to engage my Chair the other day on the subject of tests. I explained that I was not loving the idea that students could fail my class because of a test that they did not take in my class and that I had not written or, you know, even looked at. I explained that it felt like the course I was teaching wasn’t really the course I was teaching. It seemed more like a test-delivery vehicle that was disguised to look like a college English course.
The Chair looked at me in what I can only describe as annoyance with a dash of genuine shock. “Your students can pass your class if they fail the test,” he explained. “But they just can’t move on to the next course in the sequence until they earn a passing score on the test.” This all seemed perfectly reasonable to him. Students could “pass” my course, but they just couldn’t take the next one.
It then occurred to me that the abundance of tests in education these days is changing not only the definitions of words we thought we knew. It’s changing how we think, altering our logic. To “pass” a course now does not necessarily mean that one has done well enough to proceed.
More troubling, the Chair’s attitude was apparent in his response to my question. He looked at me as if I was the crazy one. “Why are you even asking such an impertinent question?” is what I’m sure he was saying in his mind. It’s as if to raise concerns about the Orwellian universe we have all entered is beyond the scope of polite discourse. His response, and the way he spoke, made me feel that to even ask, “hey what’s the deal with all these tests,” was rude.
One does not want to be rude, especially to one’s direct supervisor. So I slinked away back into the classroom with my students, by which I mean the Kafka-esque drama that features us. I was teaching a course; and the students were taking one. But somehow neither one of us feels like we are in any way responsible for the outcome, whatever that may turn out to be.