Proficiency Testing Blues

This last week we administered our high school proficiency tests, a series of three multiple choice exams which must be passed in order to graduate.  There are tests for science, math, and reading.  I proctored the two-hour science test during regular classes on Monday morning, and the math and reading tests–three hours for each–on a special day set aside for them on Tuesday.  Some events:

  • One young man put his head down less than half an hour into the three hour math test.  I nudged him and asked if he was done.  He said no and put his head back down.  A few minutes later, I saw him texting on a cell phone, so I took his test away and said that it couldn’t count now, even though he’d already done a two hour section of the test the day before (as per test security rules which I explained before the test started).  He said he didn’t care, and calmly left for the dean’s office. 


  • You’d think an episode like that would have made the other students less likely to play with their phones during the test.  You’d be wrong.  Such is the totality of addiction, don’t you know.


  • A young woman came back from lunch announcing that as soon as she was done with her test, she was getting up and leaving. During the test, her attention span must have run out, as she and the three friends around her started whispering and throwing bits of paper at each other. I moved them to desks at different corners of the room, to which she grumbled that I was difficult and irritating. She sat down and refused to keep working. A few minutes later, she also started texting. She got what she apparently wanted–I took her test and she had to go to the dean.


  • I fear that the misbehavior may have more to do with hopelessness than attention span. I suspect that some of the students may have looked at these infamous tests, may have even tried them for a bit, but realized that they didn’t have any chance of passing. So that was a waste of time and they had to kill all that time somehow.


  • Exactly one student on the second day thought to bring a book to read during the time left over after working on the test. The others just sat there and stared at the wall, bored out of their skulls.


  • As students left for the lunch break, I saw ripped up pieces of scratch paper in the hallway.  Smoothing them out, I saw drawings that a student from my room had killed some time on, with her name on it, and the name of the boy next to her that the cartoon was of.  I put the pieces on the floor between their desks and, when lunch ended and kids came back in, told them that that trash needed to be thrown away.  They just looked at each other.  I was about to call on the girl by name to do it when one of the three honors students in the room arose, scooped up the litter, and threw it away. 


  • A young man fell asleep this morning and, as I saw when I nudged him, had made a puddle of drool on his forearm the size of a silver dollar. 


  • One young man didn’t show up for the first day of testing at all.  After the second test, right before lunch, he asked if he could make up the first test.  I said no; that the policy was to only do the test that the time was designated for.  Besides, I thought, there isn’t possibly enough time to do it today. “So I’ll have to take it next year?” he asked.  I said yes.  He didn’t bother coming back after lunch, so now he has two tests to finish before graduating.


  • Another young man—the subject of the cartoon drawings, in fact, had a metal cross on a necklace.  Most of the time, he kept the cross in his mouth, sucking on it like a pacifier.  Pretty disturbing image, frankly. 


  • While passing out the answer sheets, I saw one girl’s purse on the floor, open enough to reveal the pack of cigarettes inside.  I wasn’t surprised.  She has the pinched, sour, bleary face of those teens who are already veterans of substance abuse. 


  • 29 teens were assigned to my room for testing.  Three never showed up.  Of the 26 who did, 15 were female.  Racially, 11 students were white, 11 were Hispanic, 4 were black.  Zero were Asian.  Is this a representative cross-section of our school’s population?  I don’t know.  Of the last names in my room, only two appeared more than once: Estrada and Flores. 


  • One young woman was very polite but very slow, and wasn’t done when the test ended.  Our policy is that students may work on this as long as they are productive, so I stayed in my room and ate lunch while she continued working, after everyone else left.  I told her she could eat her lunch while she worked (it only seemed fair), which she did, quietly, while she kept testing.  It was pleasant.  She showed up about twenty minutes late each of the two testing days; I don’t know if the tardiness and slowness in reading might somehow be related.

6 comments on “Proficiency Testing Blues

  1. I actually had a kid take a picture of his test while being monitored by another teacher. He got his phone confiscated in my classroom for texting later in the day, I think. I flipped open his phone for some reason, and there was the test. Gwen was not really happy as you can imagine.

  2. One might get the impression that the students dont’ really see this testing as worth their time, and they’re probably right. We spend far too much time and energy on testing students and far too little time instilling a love of learning and giving the skills to research on their own. What exactly is the point of this testing for the student? They aren’t going to learn anything from it, except how to take tests. Let’s say they are proficient or aren’t proficient – how is that going to affect their lives? Do you really think they are going to retain this information after the test is over? Do they have any reason to?

  3. Lisa, that’s a great story. The best part is, would most kids have even known how to use that information to cheat effectively? Honestly, they probably would have messed it up.

    Charles, you know what? You make a very strong point. The only thing is: most kids for whom this would apply–and there are a lot–don’t analyze their environment this profoundly. I’d love to see more good critical thinking like this from teens!

  4. Good point, Huston. It seems to me that our emphasis on achievement testing isn’t really effective in building critical thinking skills. Particularly in schools where test scores are historically low and pressure to increase them is strong, aren’t teachers likely to “teach to the test” rather than spend time on critical thinking? It has always seemed to me (as a non-teacher I should point out) that the most important things for any school to foster are a love of learning and proficiency with the tools necessary to gain information and analyze it critically. It is not my impression that many schools have this orientation.

  5. I don’t know if we’d agree about curricula, but we basically agree about goals, here, to the extent that such things are realistic.

  6. Charles, while you have a point, it correlates with Huston’s position that an intact family is the best aid to education. A family that communicates and works well together is also more likely to have books in the house, to provide an environment in which learning is honored and encouraged. An intact family sees the need for education, and frequently an example of learning continued as an adult. Example,a mother and child taking music and piano lessons together. A father teaching his offspring to change the brake pads on the car. Parents that refuse to pay for a cell phone for their kids with more than a hour or two per month, or that screen what they are taking to school. Parents committed enough to their choldren’s education to know their teachers, their homework assignments, grades and future education goals.

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