Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Testing Environment- Security vs Comfort

I recently took three tests through Pearson/Orela to complete the transfer of my teaching credential from Hawaii to Oregon. These tests took place in a special Pearson building run by special Pearson testing elves with special Pearson/Orela Rules And Regulations. These Rules and Regulations are for TESTING SECURITY and are inviolate.

They also create the least friendly of all possible testing environments. They create an atmosphere that, if you were a person inclined to stress or test anxiety, would negatively impact your testing abilities.

When I walked in the door I was early, so I brought with me some of the notes I'd taken from various free online study sources. My plan was to look them over one last time and pretend that would help my score, even though you and I know that the Last Minute Concept Stick is a myth not even movies can pull off.

This was not to be. As soon as I walked in the door I was greeted with, "Good afternoon, are you here to take a test? Are those study materials? No study materials in the building, they need to go back in your car." Not rude, per-se, but I'm still in the lobby. I haven't sat down or signed in or given my name yet. I'm a foot in the door and already I'm in possible violation of Testing Procedures.

I put my notes back in my car.

Upon re-entry I gave my name, rank, and serial number. My palm was scanned to be used as an identifier later. Yes, my palm was scanned. Did you know palm scanning technology existed as a means of identification through blood vessel matching? I did not. It exists. The future is now. She scanned both palms. Just in case, I guess. (Side note- how much of my testing fee went towards palm scan research?) After my identity was verified I was given a locker key and told to put everything in it. Everything. I could bring my drivers license and the locker key in to the testing area. "I have a handkerchief," I said. "For the sniffles."

"In the locker. If you need a tissue raise your hand and someone will be by with one."

Oh. I see no way that could go poorly.

Once this process was completed I was taken down the hall, literally a dozen steps, to the Testing Area Observation Cube. The Testing Area Observation Cube is where Panopticon sits and faces three glass walls, which look out on the U-shaped testing room of computers.
And my palm was scanned again. My drivers license compared to my face and the faces of dozens in the FBI's Test Cheater Registry. I was given an erasable board flip board for taking notes and working math problems and told, "Do not erase anything you write in this. If you fill it and need a new one raise your hand and I will bring you a new one." Because erasing notes is a common practice among the cheater cheater pumpkin eater sort. (Note- pumpkin eating while testing is also prohibited.)

"When we enter the testing area stand with your back against the wall until I close the door and then follow me to your testing station." I expected to get deloused with powdered sugar at any second.
I have a bad habit of cracking my knuckles when preparing for something. I fidget. I can't help it. Sometimes the fidgeting is noisy, sometimes it's a silent foot/leg jiggle. I realize this does not help those around me focus and I try to not do it. I cracked my knuckles. "Get that out of your system now, you can't do that once we get inside."

Ever been told not to do something you were doing subconsciously? What happens? Yeah, so now I'm working on a low/moderate stress level about testing (I was confident going in, but the test was basically an unknown and my job depended on performing well) and I'm thinking about not being distracting to others.

I was let in, stood with my back against the door, followed the leader to my testing station, a computer with a big screen and partitions on either side, handed my erasable notepad that I couldn't erase, logged in, and left alone. In silence. Staring for the next 90 (or however long it took) minutes at a big, bright screen, trying not to talk to myself even though I think better reading out loud because then I can hear the problem. Trying not to think about how much easier it would be to think if I could stand and stretch or pace, because movement helps my brain work. Not tapping or whispering or moving in a way that generated any noise because I'm not a jerk and I don't want to distract the people around me either.

This entire process, while efficient and cold, is not comforting or creating a relaxing environment. It is not a thinking-positive environment. It's not a place where you should feel comfortable. It's a place where you should feel watched. It's Testing with a capital T. The way It Should Be.
The goal of this place is a secure Testing Environment. Period.

Which means the goal of the testing facility is not the goal of the test. The goal of a test, as we all know, is to assess learning. That is not the message the test facility is projecting. It doesn't say, "Do
your best." It says, "If you cheat we will catch you. And if you don't cheat we'll make you feel like you might be anyway." The testing facility cares about the process, not the product, and in this case the two are inseparable. You cannot claim the results of the test are fair in the conditions of the test are not conducive to quality test performance.

I know Pearson and Orela are businesses. I know they don't actually care about how we do on the test. Were I cynical I'd say they want us to do poorly because then we have to retest, putting more money in their pockets, so they create an environment under the guise of safety that is just unpleasant. Like the TSA. I also know that swinging how they conduct business won't be possible until someone uncovers a massive digital cheating program has been hacked into their systems, which probably hasn't happened yet but I'd bet will happen soon.

What I can do, and the point of that extremely long prologue, is change how I test in my classroom.

I'm The Weird Teacher (tm), right? I have a reputation for doing things differently, creatively, sideways. I'm a wild and ca-razay guy!

Except when it comes to testing. Oh, you can learn and practice on the floor, or on your desk, or standing, talking to a partner or group or working alone. You can learn with music in the background, with movement, with noise. But the tests? In your desk, in your seat, quiet. Why? Because Test Security. Thou Shalt Not Cheat and to ensure that Thou Shalt Be Where I Can See You. During a test my class suddenly looks very traditional.

And I realized about fifteen minutes in to my first Pearson/Orela test that I suuuuuuck. How dare I? My class is still a friendly environment, even during testing, but is it as friendly as it could be? Is it as conducive to student success as it could be? Or is it built to keep cheating from happening first and learning to be assessed second? Put my students in this environment and some would fail not from inability to learn but from inability to deal with the stress and overwhelming environment. I know grown ups who would fail for the same reason.

So I've changed things. Some things. A written test in my class is still a silent thing. I don't know how to get around that. It's not a prison lockdown silent thing, but it's a no talking thing. I'm playing music in the background now, soft piano music, something none distracting. I had a conversation with my class about whether or not the music was distracting first. We're dialing it in.

The biggest change is my movement rules during a test. I was on my way here anyway. This is the next logical step. My kids can now sit wherever, however. Just like when they are learning. On desks, under desks, on the floor, on our beanbag chair, against the wall, standing, shifting, fidgeting moving, as long as you aren't disturbing another classmate you can do your thing while you're doing my thing. I long ago decided books during reading comprehension tests are good as gold because on The Big Test they will always give the kids the selection next to the test, and in life you can probably look up what your question is. Finding, in this world, is as important as knowing. Sam reason I'm giving times tables charts and calculators on math tests. Here's a tool, but if you can't use it properly it's still useless.

I'm the first to admit that this is can not be the end of my evolution on testing. I don't love the Worksheet Test, I don't. But it's one of the Don't Like It Have To Do Its in my school. I get around it when I can. But we record data and that data has to be standard across the grade level so I can't throw these tests out completely.

I digress, this post is not about the assessments themselves. It's about the test environment. It is here that I can make a difference. It is also here that I run in to my one hurdle- preparing them for The Big Tests that they will someday take. When my class does Smarter Balance I won't be able to hand out beanbag chairs and let them sit wherever. My school as a whole isn't that open yet. I'll ask about it, I'll try, but they will probably be in the computer lab, locked in to a screen, stuck in a chair.

Which leads to my final questions. Does my looser testing environment in class hurt them by not preparing them for what that will be like? Should I alternate between one way and the other? How can I ready them for every institutional test they will take going forward? I'm not just talking about The Big School Tests. When I got my Oregon drivers license and my motorcycle endorsement the DMV sat me in front of a screen and told me to shush and answer the questions. This post opened (remember when it opened, ages ago? It was still light out and you didn't have to pee?) with me not taking a Big Test at the End for some silly score, but for my job. We can say that they aren't real life but sometimes (not often but sometimes) they actually are.

I want my classroom to be a friendly, safe, welcoming environment all the time. I believe humans learn better, and demonstrate their learning better, in that way. I'm taking steps towards making that a reality and taking a Test taught me something I brought back to my own room.


  1. You constantly are making things better for your students and for others. Reflection upon teaching that is totally it. You've got it and we are daily sad that we lost you here in Hawai'i. Your tales of the PEARSON test are similar to mine when I was in Florida. Best wishes to you always and keep doing what you are doing.

  2. I think students will get plenty of practice with traditional testing environments in other classes. And even if they don't, nearly all (excepting those who have high test anxiety) will adjust to it when they encounter it.