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Philosophical Meanderings

Damn it, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a statistician!

I don’t care about my provincial diploma exam results. There, I’ve said it.

Every year around this time, I get a little booklet slipped into my mailbox at school detailing how well my students did on their English 30 diploma exams, worth 50% of their final mark. I’ve always felt a bit nervous as I open up these booklets, perhaps as nervous as the students themselves as they open their own envelopes and look at their own grades. I look at my top students and see how they did on the diploma, and my weaker students to see how they did. Inevitably there are some surprises (“He got an 80?!? I thought he slept through my class!”) and some not-so-surprises (“Yep. 62%. That’s about right.”)

The booklet also talks about which of the 120 standards are met in each of the 70-odd multiple-choice questions and two essay questions, but I’ll admit that I’ve never actually taken the time to read those pages and cross-reference them with my 500-odd page Guide to Implementation. I suppose this makes me a bad statistician.

Finally, I look at the gap between the diploma marks and the school-based marks, a gap that’s always about 10% or so. This always, always, ALWAYS makes me cringe, because these diploma exams are designed so that the average mark is 65%, and the provincial average mark is somewhere around 75% for English 30. This means that I’m average. Some of my students are discrepant (there was a 30% gap this year with one of my students), but on the whole I’m a wholly average teacher – as far as the government is concerned.

Yet I spend very little class time preparing these students for their Scantron bubbling and canned response-writing. On the contrary, I’ve spent a lot of sweat and tears converting my room from an “English classroom” into a community of writers. This year I’m having English 10 students peer edit English 30 students and vice versa; I don’t do any timed essay writing practice; and I emphasise creative writing over analytical writing. A student this week, a young man I’ve taught for the past four years, told me that he hasn’t read a complete novel ever, but he was enjoying the Canadian literature package I had given to him. I’m not surprised: many students in my school, including this fellow, enjoy hunting, and I deliberately found Canadian short stories that dealt with rural life. Too often I’ve heard the complaint that Canadian literature is boring, and so, instead of sticking to anthologies published by urban publishers several provinces away, I’ve created my own.

I’m not saying all of this to pat myself on the head. I’m saying this because I feel deeply ambivalent about this whole testing process. I’m an average teacher, says my results booklet, and yet I pride myself on doing English in a different manner than other teachers in my division. For starters, I believe that the diploma exam doesn’t measure how well a student listens or speaks, two skills arguably more important to our day-to-day lives than reading and writing. It doesn’t measure how well students can revise their own work over days, or weeks, or months, if necessary. It doesn’t measure the dedication and long hours they’ve poured into their creative writing pieces. Instead, this test measures formulaic writing and the ability to identify and cast aside potential multiple-choice answers.

But I still get nervous when I open that booklet, and I still feel twinges of guilt when I look at those results, even as I remind myself that these results come from two days of testing – two days out of ninety classes. I reassure myself that I’m not in control of what they ate for breakfast those mornings, how late they stayed up the nights before, or whether they actually care about those standardised tests. I’ve not had a former student come up to me and complain about the marks they’ve received, or accuse me of being a bad teacher, even though I certainly don’t cover all 120 course objectives over the course of a year, I don’t spend two months teaching Shakespeare, and I don’t spend all ninety classes drilling them on those diploma exams.

I might get nervous, and I might stress out over those numbers, but I’ve made a deliberate choice to not care about those diploma exam results. If I did, I might start changing how I teach: allowing less time for student collaboration and more time for multiple choice practice; less time for creative writing and more time for practicing past diploma exams; less time for student choice and more time for short, meaningless assignments designed to measure whether or not a student has hit all 120 of those darned course objectives.

And so, dear Cooperative Catalyst community, I admit it: I don’t care about my students’ diploma exam results. May God have mercy on my soul.

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


2 thoughts on “Damn it, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a statistician!

  1. We need to voice our ambivalence (or condemnation) so our students, their parents, our administrators, and our communities know that we’re invested in authentic change and authentic learning. I wonder how much more quickly we could do away with high stakes testing if we were all so honest – how often do we get together as schools and divisions to talk about whether or not or how we value “achievement” in standardized testing?

    That would be as scary as it is necessary. I don’t want to sustain a “we-don’t-like-it-but” profession.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 13, 2011, 12:37 pm
  2. Standardized tests are, without exception, games to be played. There are lot of reasons why they should be discarded out of hand.

    I never learned a thing from a standardized test, and I will never again take one.

    I have great respect for you and other teachers who are in a Catch-22 situation in which “education” must be balanced against “training” to take tests.

    May God have mercy on those who develop standardized tests and profit from them (and those who pass laws and regulations requiring them to be taken)… were it up to me, the whole lot of them would be cast into the fires they belong in.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | September 14, 2011, 5:49 pm

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