A friend recently posted on Facebook that tests at school do not test skills like creativity, empathy, humor, leadership, or the senses of beauty and wonder among so many others. The post got me thinking and ... My dear readers, you know all too well what a dangerous thing that is. Tests in schools are a hairy topic, but here goes nothing.
In the noble light of Kethar, tests can be described as a place that allows students to judge their abilities to perform a task alone and under duress without real consequences for failure. I picture an EOD officer testing his or her skills diffusing a bomb without worrying about lives being in danger. To simplify, we have a situation that is just like real life, but there are no lives or limbs lost as a result of failure. The great thing about this is that a student who is fully committed to the false reality of the test gains REAL experience. As humans, we can actively submit to false realities of stories and digest lessons as if we were actually there. A test is making that false reality react to our actions in real time so that we may live in a world we are not in.
In our public school systems today, tests are meant to measure one's abilities to perform a task alone. Sounds pretty similar to what I just described, but a few details are off. First, I have encountered very few examples of tests in all my time as a student that accurately emulated what I would see in the real world. Second, every time I took a test, my entire future was at risk; failure meant a lowered grade. Adults are pretty smart, most know that grades don't make or break the soul of a learner-- look at Einstein or Jobs. However, as children inside the machine, grades mean everything because that's what we tell children. To summarize, we have a situation that is nothing like real life and if we fail, we risk losing everything. This is the EXACT opposite of what I just described.
"I used to pray that I would get hit by a car so I wouldn't have to take a test. That's awful-- and common. It is not how anyone should learn anything." These are the words of a dear friend of mine. She is not alone. In an environment where a scant few hours of testing determines 70% of my grade, I've had similar thoughts. For instance, my college had a policy that if a roommate died, the surviving roomie would be automatically passed through all of her classes to reduce stress. A tempting offer!
Wait a minute! There is something so very wrong here! Did I really consider faking my death for a roommate? Did I really write Japanese vocabulary words on my leg out of fear of failure? I totally did both of those things ... And now I must ask myself that most fatal question: Why? Neil deGrasse-Tyson said this better than I ever could, "When students cheat on exams, it is because our school system values grades more than students value learning."
An important thing to note with this quote is that when he says the school system values grades more than students value learning, he is not miffing the student's desire for learning. He is merely pointing out that the school's desire for grading outweighs it. For all of my faults, I LOVE learning. Yet I succumbed to the same stresses and responses many of my peers did in the pursuit of an exceedingly valuable piece of paper. It's ok. It doesn't speak little of me as a student. It speaks little of our institutions for their hubris.
To look at a good example of a test, observe the Kobiyashi Maru of the Star Trek universe. It is a test that shoves a young officer into the position of a captain who runs into a no-win situation against impossible foes. The purpose of the test is to experience fear and to remain composed in the face of one's own death. The score sheet is not a percentage of saved lives, nor is the test passed by accomplishing the original task of routine rescue. The test itself puts the resolve of the officer on the table and in taking it, she learns about herself and therefore grades herself. Tests like this can teach us humility and mindfulness, sacrifice and futility, they can teach us to face our death and still make the right choice.
Our tests are broken. Lets fix them.