In early April, I received notification from my college career center about a temporary position specifically seeking graduate students with biology teaching degrees. Happy for an opportunity to break from my routine studies and make a little cash on the side, I agreed and signed up for a one-week contract as a “hand scoring test evaluator”. I had no idea what I was in for.
Over the next five days, I trained and scored with 18 other individuals who had previously worked as biochemists, bioengineers, scientists, and field biologists. We worked in 2 pods of 9 and covered approximately 4000 student responses for 1 science test question a day. The training sessions were grueling; each scorer had to pass two tests in the morning to qualify for live scoring. We had to re-train if we failed the first test, and if we were unable to pass the second test, we were sent home. Many scorers, specifically those with extensive biology backgrounds, failed the qualifying tests. Even I failed once and had to attend a second training session.
One of the rules we were given during our first training session was: “Forget what you know and follow the scoring guide.” There was an older gentleman who previously worked as a field biologist and continuedly failed the qualifying tests. In his frustration, he remarked, “What was the point of seeking out biology-trained people in the first place?” Inwardly, I agreed with him. We weren’t valued for our expertise in science and biology; we were extra hands brought in to meet scoring deadlines. It was interesting to note how many of us struggled with the qualifying tests– even the English teachers across the room who were hired to evaluate writing responses struggled. More than 30 of them alone were sent home on the second day! What did the scoring procedures say about our own background knowledge? About learning itself?
As a secondary science teacher, there were many student responses I would have scored differently. At that point, I had already seen several remarkable student responses that relied on the students’ prior knowledge of the science concept. However, their answers were scored a zero because it failed to include the right keywords, or have the exact answer. It hurt me to have to do that.
This was one of the many observations I began to make during my week as a standardized test evaluator. In its quest for quality control and assessment, the tests and scoring guides–to me– seemed to emphasize low-level learning and de-emphasize higher-level learning, background knowledge, and student creativity. Academic reform touted standardized testing as one way to measure student academic achievement but from what I have seen, the low scores on those tests did nothing more than highlight students’ failures.
Thinking about the older gentleman’s comment and my recent exposure to the other side of standardized testing as an evaluator, I began to question the effect of standardized testing on student achievement, motivation and self-esteem. A particular batch of high school biology student responses came from a state widely known for its high curriculum standards. These students were required to pass the exam in order to graduate from high school. This was the second time they were taking this test. During my time as an evaluator, only 6 out of approximately 2000 student responses received a high score of 4 (score guide with 1 as the lowest, 4 as the highest). Most students averaged a score of 2 or 3.
It was also interesting to see that there were also many blanks, a few artistic drawings and scribbles, and a handful of interesting story narratives about the weather. On one particular day, I came across a particular response in which the student wrote an angry essay. After several paragraphs of obscenities, he wrote, “I hate this exam. I tried so hard, but I can’t get it! Ya’ll make me feel stupid. Forget this, I’ll stick to the streets…make more money selling drugs anyway.”
Before I agreed to score the science tests, I had seen standardized testing from two distinct perspectives: as a student who has taken them in middle school, high school and college; and as a teacher who had to monitor classes during benchmark testing. I didn’t think much of standardized tests as a student– they were part of my school day, and I simply had to get through it. As a pre-service teacher, I was inundated with protocol and fragmented shifts where I was supposed to relieve other teachers for bathroom breaks. This was the first time, however, I was able to see standardized testing from a new third perspective, which is that of a test evaluator.
Seeing that student’s angry response really opened my eyes. I never thought twice about how students felt about the tests either as a student myself or as a pre-service teacher. I was either too absorbed in passing my own tests as a student, or too distracted by fears that I did not teach enough and the scores will reflect badly on me (or rather, on my cooperative teacher’s) as a pre-service teacher. It was only as a test evaluator that I began to see into the world of students taking these tests–what did it really mean for them? How did they truly feel about these tests? Did it help them, or as in the case of this angry student, did it just make things worse? And most importantly, as a new teacher, what can I do to better prepare my students for standardized testing?
I think about that student and wonder if he did go back to the streets in the end. I wonder if anyone told that student that he was worth more than just a grade, and if someone stepped up and made the effort to help that student instead of penalizing him for that response.