Although it's not officially part of my job, occasionally I find myself helping to supervise or correct tests at school. It can be quite a humbling experience, discovering that my English is less than perfect according to the Ministry of Education.
Last week I corrected a sixth grade test. Had I been taking the test myself, I would have lost at least 6 points because I thought that the best title for the story was not the one given in the answer key. I may have been angry rather than dissappointed when I couldn't go to a birthday party, or thought that I was supposed to decorate rather than clean my room, and I would have lost a few more points. I'm creative and imaginative by nature but I know that the people who write these tests aren't, so I would have known better than to say that I died in 1996 or that I was sad because my dog argued, which shows that I do have some test-taking skills.
And test-taking skills are exactly what you need to pass a standardized test. That's why in order to prepare for these tests we stop teaching English and just practice doing old tests. They also have very strict guidelines as to how they should be graded, so that under no circumstances will a child be given extra points for being smarter than the person who wrote the test. Points are given for finding the write answer, nothing extra for a perfectly written complete sentence which proves that the student actually understands the question and answer. Of course, there are enough trick questions to make sure that no one can get everything right. And what about all of the students who didn't know what to do when the instructions said "Answer the following question." followed by a sentence and then another instruction – "Copy a word from the text that shows this". Shouldn't they get some credit for noticing that there wasn't a question? But the person who wrote the test also wrote the guidelines for correcting it and obviously didn't notice the mistake.
This was all in the last two weeks. But I still remember one of the moments years ago when I realized that I would never survive as a formal teacher. I was surpervising a test in elementary school and the children had to read a passage and then mark sentences true or false. About half of the students said that they couldn't tell from the story if one of the sentences was true or false. I read the story and the sentence and realized that they were correct, the answer wasn't there, so I told them to write next to it that they couldn't tell. Afterwards I told the class teacher that I thought there was a mistake in the test and she told me no, everyone knows that if you can't find the answer in the text then the answer is false. I told her what I had told the students and she said that since I told them that she would accept it. I couldn't accept that. What was she testing? If they said that the information wasn't in the text and it wasn't, they obviously understood both the text and the sentence. What is the point of taking off points for not knowing the rule that "don't know = false"?
Teachers, including those like me who teach informally, are told that before we prepare a lesson we should know what it is we want the students to learn. Test preparers need to start asking themselves the same question – What is it that they are testing?